Tag Archives: Richard Flanagan

Other People’s Bookshelves #85 –Anna O’Grady

Hello and welcome back to the series Other People’s Bookshelves. Every so often here on Savidge Reads we welcome a guest who takes over the blog and feeds into the book lust we all crave by sharing their shelves. This week we are off to Sydney, where we are joining the wonderful, wonderful  Anna O’Grady, who is responsible for me hearing about many a wonderful read and even sending me  one or two from Australia that she really, really wants people to read. Like Charlotte Wood’s amazing The Natural Way of Things, which if you haven’t read by now you must. Anyway, Anna has kindly invited us to have a gander at her bookshelves with a nice cup of tea or two and some lovely treats, though the Violet Crumbles are all mice. Before we have a peruse of her shelves though let’s let Anna introduce herself a bit more…

I come from a third generation of booksellers – so you might say that books have always been my destiny and they certainly are my passion. My grandfather was a Polish bookseller and collector of rare books before World War II. Sadly his bookstore and most of his collection was destroyed during the final bombing of the city of Poznan. There is only a handful of books that survived, but one of them is an extremely rare hand-printed book of Japanese poetry. My mother carried on the tradition of family bookselling and married a man who was first trained as a printer, but went on to work in a small publishing house. As far back as I can remember our tiny apartment was always full of books and often full of writers having big political discussions around our kitchen table. I always loved reading, but rebelling against ‘following in my parent’s footsteps’ – I vowed not to work in a bookshop. I left Poland at the age of 19. It was really hard to start a new life with limited language skills and no friends and family, but I quickly discovered that bookstores were the best places to cure my homesickness and help me understand new countries. Here I came across old friends –  classics and authors that I’d read over the years, but  I also discovered a the whole new world of books and authors that I’d  never heard of. It was not long before my vows were forgotten and I started working in a bookstore. Although I moved countries a few times, I never left the book world, spending my working hours in bookshops in England, Switzerland, Canada, USA, Australia and New Zealand. I made a move to the publishing side about three years ago and although I do miss bookshops, I also enjoy this different way of ‘making’ books.

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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?

There is no way that I could have possibly kept all the books I read, but I did become very creative in finding new ways of stacking books ;-)….. My current library has over 3000 books, and I regularly do some ‘pruning’. I keep books by all my favourite authors (and there are quite a few of them) and I collect books in a couple of specific areas. Although I reinforced the floors under the part of the library that holds most of my hardcovers, I often pray that my little house does not collapse under the weight of all these books. I am also trying to make more use of my local public library to reduce the load on my bookshelves.

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, I definitely have a system going. First my books are divided by the three languages in which I read; secondly they are divided by fiction and nonfiction. Nonfiction is divided into subsections: history/politics, arts, nature etc. with two special subsections in which I collect books about history of women and books about books, libraries, reading etc. My fiction section is divided by continents and then by the country of the author’s origin, the two biggest parts being dedicated to Canadian and Australian writing. I also have a special section for classics and poetry … and then there are of course my various stacks, books to be read later, books to be read now, books that I am dipping in and out of etc. etc. Yes, I know it’s all a bit mad.

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

My first recollection of books I bought with my own money are The Moomins by Tove Jansson. I was probably about 7 or 8 when they started appearing in Poland and I saved money for them in my little piggy bank and yes I still have them. I still love them and have added to the collection over the years.

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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?

My guilty pleasures are some of the horror novels (especially Japanese) and lots of mysteries, but I am not embarrassed by them and they live on the shelves in perfect harmony with all other books.

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 the hardest question – I honestly could not name a single book. It would be more like an armful of books. I would definitely want to keep my original Moomins, but I also have an amazing collection of signed books. Most of these carry memories of unforgettable encounters and long conversations with extraordinary writers –  these include books by my favourites –  Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, Michael Ondaatje, Gunter Grass, Peter Carey, Richard Flanagan, Jose Saramago, Umberto Eco, Salman Rushdie, Anthony Marra, J.K Rowling and so many more. I also should single out my 1st Canadian edition of Life of Pi. Sorry, I know it sounds like a lot of name dropping, but over the years I have been very privileged as a bookseller to meet some truly remarkable people.

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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?

Probably some of the American classics of the 20th century, I distinctively remember being in  high school and discovering a  whole shelf of them in my parent’s library – books by Joseph Heller, Irvin Shaw, Ernest Hemingway. I had a preference for dark stories and that has not changed.

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?

If I really loved it yes I would go and buy it, but I no longer buy all the books I want to read. I really enjoy using my local library.

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

I bought this week The Mothers by Brit Bennett, on a recommendation of my favourite Australian bookshop: Readings in Melbourne. (I am ¾ into it and I would highly recommend it too) and I borrowed a copy of The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan on the recommendation of another author Aoife Clifford, whose reading tastes I always respect. I do have to add here that both you and Kim from readingmattersblog are very trusted and frequent source of recommendations too.

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

Nothing that I really would lose my sleep over, but I always have lists of books that I would like to read.

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

Well it is quite a mix of books that I have – so the only thing that I hope people would say is that I have an open and curious mind.

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A huge thanks to Anna for taking part in Other People’s Bookshelves.. If you would like to catch up with the other posts in the series of Other People’s Bookshelves have a gander here. Don’t 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, I am catching up with all the latest volunteers. In the meantime… what do you think of Anna’s responses and/or any of the books and authors that she mentions?

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My Top 12 Australian Books

Today the lovely Kim of Reading Matters posted a list of ten books written by Australian authors she loves in honour of Australia Day. So I asked if I could copy her. Here I have to say, before I share my list with you, that Kim’s is bound to be much better so you must check it out. Kim is also only reading Australian books this year which I am going to be following with much interest. My knowledge and Australian reading might not be as good as Kim’s however I have loved many a book by an Australian author and so here are twelve books I would highly, highly recommend you give a whirl. You can find the full review, bar one, by clicking on the books title if you want to find out more.

12. Burial Rites – Hannah Kent

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Burial Rites was one of those books, based on a true story, that blew me way. It is the late 1820’s in Iceland and the lives of District Officer Jon Jonsson, his wife Margret and daughters Lauga and Steina, are changed on their farm of Kornsá when the news that they will be housing a criminal in the lead up to her execution, for we are in times when prisons do not exist. The criminal in question is Agnes Magnusdottir who, many believe, killed ‘healer’ Natan Ketilsson and his neighbour along with Sigridur and Fredrik who are to be housed elsewhere for fear they will concoct some tale or escape. What I thought was particularly great about this novel was that first we ask ourselves if we think Agnes is a killer and then suddenly start to ponder why on earth this family have been chosen to house someone who could be incredibly dangerous. Stunningly written, utterly compelling.

11. Bitter Greens – Kate Forsyth

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As many of you will well know I love fairytales and my very favourite above all the others is that of Rapunzel. In Kate Forsyth’s brilliant Bitter Greens we are sent into the lives of three women. First is Charlotte-Rose de la Force, who has been exiled from the court of the Sun King Louis XIV after a fall from grace too far (which in those times was saying something) and is banished to live in an Abbey with nuns. Second is Selena Leonelli, once one of the most beautiful women in Italy and even the muse of the Venetian artist Titian. Depicted forever in his paintings she has one fear, time, and how it will take her beauty something she will do anything to keep. Thirdly we have Margherita, a young girl trapped in a tower forever unless she finds a way to escape. Yes, you have guessed it all three of these women have the story of Rapunzel in their life somewhere be they the one who retells the tale, mirrors the tale or indeed is part of the tale. Through these three women we learn the magic of storytelling, the hardship of women through the years and how they have had to struggle (in good and bad ways) in order to survive. It is utterly marvellous.

10. You’ll Be Sorry When I’m Dead – Marieke Hardy

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Those of you who have followed this blog for sometime will know that I am something of a Marieke Hardy fanboy. I think she is ace and love her thoughts, even when I don’t agree with them, whatever they are when she discussed books on my favourite book TV show here. You’ll Be Sorry When I’m Dead  is a collection of frank, funny and filthy memoir essays about various points in Marieke’s life so far. It 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, she is quite open to showing some of her worst/most cringe worthy and I love her all the more for it, in a non stalker kind of way.

9. Mateship With Birds – Carrie Tiffany

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I have just noticed that the cover of this book is very like my new wallpaper, anyway… On the outskirts of a town somewhere in Australia in the early 1950’s we join two neighbours. Harry owns a dairy farm and spends his days between milking his herd and watching the local wildlife, mainly a family of kookaburra’s, and looking over his past seemingly happy with and yet questioning his lot in life. Betty rents the house next door with her two children Michael and Little Hazel, often wondering what has become of her life and often wondering about Harry. We follow these two characters, Betty’s children, and their weird neighbour Mues over what I thought was a season – though it could be much longer or indeed shorter as Mateship with Birds has a sense of nothing and everything happening all at once, all in the grubby wilds of the countryside. I loved this, it has the earthy countryside wilds elements which I love, it has a deep sense of unease at times and is a book which just holds you from start to finish. It is hard to say more than that.

8. The Spare Room – Helen Garner

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When Helen says that her old friend Nicola to come and stay in her spare room she has a limited idea of what she is taking on. It is not simply a friend coming to stay for a short holiday; Nicola has terminal cancer and could possibly have come to stay with Helen to die. Helen becomes more than just Nicola’s friend she becomes her nurse, maid and the one who stand up to her no matter how unpopular that might prove. What follows is an emotionally gut wrenching and heartbreaking account of friendship at its most potent and at its most tested. Having been a carer once before I read this the honesty of the novel was both shocking yet also deeply consoling.

7. All The Birds, Singing – Evie Wyld

“Another sheep, mangled and bled our, her innards not yet crusting and the vapours rising from her like a steamed pudding.” And so starts ‘All The Birds, Singing’ and so we find our heroine Jake as she takes in the sight before her, another of her sheep has been mutilated, killed by some ‘thing’. Yet what is the ‘thing’ that could be killing her flock one by one? Could it be the local kids who think she is some out of town witch? Could it be the neighbours’ crazy son? Could it be a monster, be it real, imagined or from Jake’s hidden past? Could it be linked to the sudden appearance of a new ‘incomer’ in the area? Evie Wyld keeps us guessing as the story goes back in time whilst also going forward, we glimpse moments in Jake’s past not from the point where something awful happened that she fled but slowly back to that moment, which is a treat to read whilst being both highly accomplished and very original. It is another of those wonderful books that keeps you guessing without you (quite) tearing your hair out.

6. Loaded – Christos Tsiolkas

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I am a huge fan of The Slap, I am a huge fan of Barracuda yet it is Christos’ earlier and slighter novel Loaded that I think has stayed with me the longest after I have read it and I think it is because of the voice. he narrator of ‘Loaded’ is quite a fascinating one. Nineteen year old Ari lives in the city of Melbourne in Australia, he is Greek, he has no job, he is gay but secretly, he loves nothing more than going on massive drink and drug fuelled binges preferably with lots of random anonymous sex along the way. In fact from the first page where the novel opens with Ari masturbating with a massive hangover you pretty much know the story that you are getting here, well you think you do at least, as we follow him for the next twenty four hours. As we read on between all the drug taking, drinking, etc there is a lot that this book is looking at and saying. One of the main senses you get is a sense of needing to belong, to be a part of something and yet rejecting that very thing at the same time. The other is just what it means to be an Australian man.

5. Under The Skin – Michel Faber

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There is no link to this book because as I have discovered several times now Michel Faber is an author who I simply cannot write reviews of the books of. I can devour the books happily, I can sit and interview him fine and dandy yet when I come to write a review of his work it’s like a block. In Under the Skin Isserley, an unusual-looking woman with strangely scarred skin, drives through the Scottish Highlands both day and night, looking for just the right male hitchhikers. She picks them up, makes enough small talk to determine she’s made a safe choice, then hits a toggle switch on her car, releasing a drug that knocks her victims out. But why? Well you will have to read the book to find out and it is so worth doing.

4. The Natural Way of Things – Charlotte Wood

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I only read this last year however I know it is a book that will stay with me for quite some time as it has a force of nature about it. When Verla and Yolanda find themselves waking up in a strange unknown room, both strangers to each other, dressed in old fashioned uniforms their first instinct is that they are dreaming, then when the realise they are not they panic. Well, as much as anyone can panic when they are groggy from clearly having been drugged. Soon they are taken to another room, where they initially think they will be raped or killed, to have their heads shaved and join a further eight women, all dressed the same and shaven, who too have become captives to a pair of men. Why and for what they do not know, yet. We follow them as the shocking truth is revealed and these two women’s lives are changed forever. A dystopian thriller, a feminist text and a love story to nature.

3. On The Beach – Nevil Shute

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In an alternative 1963, bear in mind this book was originally published in 1957, a nuclear war has left nothing much of the northern hemisphere and the radiation fall out is heading south to Australia where ‘On The Beach’ is set and where the last of earths survivors are living in a mixture of denial and hope. To say all this is not to spoil the story as its pretty much spelt out to you in the first 40 pages (and of course in the blurb), in fact really you could say this story is the tale of the end of humanity, unless of course there is some major miracle – which of course I wont tell you if there is or not as you need to read this book if you haven’t. It is one of the most emotionally draining, terrifying and yet life affirming novels I have read set at the potential end of the world.

2. The Secret River – Kate Grenville

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One of Australian’s contemporary classics, which also caused much controversy when it came out, is The Secret River which initially looks like a tale about one of the first convicts to Australia trying to make a life for themselves, yet soon reveals itself to be superbly brutal and shocking novel about racism and a rather dark time in Australia’s history. As men try and stake their claims on the continent and in doing so tragic and horrific events unfold. I don’t want to say anymore than that for fear of ruining the impact this book will have on you if you are yet to read it.

1. The Narrow Road to the Deep North – Richard Flanagan

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This book left me speechless and almost unable to review it because of how moving and brilliant it is. Alwyn ‘Dorrigo’ Evans, based somewhat on Flanagan’s own father, is one of the survivors of the Death Railway in Burma where he was a prisoner of war. We follow his life before, during and after it and look at the man before and the man forever changed afterwards. The Narrow Road to the Dark North is a book that you experience, one of those books which makes you feel every paragraph emotionally and in your very core. Not only did it introduce me to a period in history, and indeed a place, that I knew almost nothing about; it also made me want to be kinder than I am, note how lucky I am, tell my loved ones I love them more often than I do and reminded me that not a second of life should be wasted because you never know what may come around the next corner. It is a book about war, peace, love, hate, death and life. Yes, it really is one of those life changing and life affirming books, an incredibly written modern masterpiece. I think it is one of my books of all time.

There is my list. Going of and trying to scout if I had missed any authors (and yes I know some of my list are anglo-Australian) I found a whole selection of authors I must read; Peter Carey, Thomas Keneally, Shirley Hazzard, Gail Jones, David Malouf, Christina Stead, Patrick White, etc. I must also read some more of the authors above and more form authors such as Tim Winton. Oh and get to some more of the classics too. I really want to read Picnic at Hanging Rock quite badly. Anyway, I would love to know which books you have read on the list and also which are your favourite books by Australian authors, I am always ready for more recommendations. Happy Australia Day everyone, though if you are in Australia it is probably the day after – oops. Now over to you…

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The Book Tingle (#BookTingle)

When I was sat with my lovely fellow judges at the first proper Fiction Uncovered meeting, the subject of what we were all looking for in winning books came up. As it went around the table with the judges and the Fiction Uncovered team things like the prose and writing style, something different that stands out, great stories etc all come up. When everyone looked at me for my response the words that came out of my mouth were ‘I want the book tingle’ and they all looked at me like they might have someone unhinged (or living up to the Simple Simon namesake) sat with them. And so I explained…

For me a book tingle is a rare and elusive phenomenon. You would initially think that for a book to give me all the tingles it would simply need to be an amazingly written book that ticks all my literary likes. Well yes, but you see there is more to it and I bet you have all had them too. You can have books that start amazingly and then, for various reasons, go off on a tangent, these ones don’t. From start to finish they have you.

The first time I had this sensation was with Catherine Hall’s The Proof of Love*.  I should hear add that since then Catherine and I have become firm friends, down to the book actually, yet when I picked it up I hadn’t heard of her before and had no knowledge of the book. Oh, expect that on the cover it said ‘Sarah Waters meets Daphne Du Maurier’ which piqued my interest and also made me wary all at once. In fact, cheeky little scamp that I am I actually thought ‘compared to Du Maurier eh? Go on then, impress me…’ and it did taking me completely by delightful surprise. You see from two or three paragraphs in I just knew this was a book for me. It is often the sense of surprise when this happens that adds to the experience.

These books are rare gems; you don’t get them often. There is an almost unexplainable feeling from the start which lasts until the final full stop. Not for a single moment does the book let you down, or indeed out of its grasp, you are effectively spell bound by it. It feels like all the rest of the world goes completely out of your mind and all that is left is you, the book and the author’s words. It is the prose, the characters, the atmosphere, everything! You almost feel, without it sounding arrogant, that this book was written just for you.

This has happened again very recently, if I may be so bold, with Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist, review coming soon. Four pages in and I knew we were off. I was in an effortless zone of book reading bliss. This book has nothing in common with The Proof of Love, well actually maybe something in hindsight but I wouldn’t have known from the start. They are set in different times, completely different places, yet somehow I just knew. And it is the same with some other books which gave me that same sensation (have I said tingle too often now making it sound even weirder than it did at the start?) like Gillespie and I, The Hunger Trace, Small Island, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, My Policeman etc ** from the very beginning I just knew. They all just got me, or did I just get them, either way it was a perfect match.

So what I am saying really, and what I think I am not looking for in just Fiction Uncovered judging but also in my reading life in general, is that the reason I keep reading is to hunt for that next kick and those extra special books. The books that you more than simply just love, the ones that give you that magic feeling, don’t let you go and afterwards become both part a landmark in your reading history and a part of your psyche.

To hear me talking about it slightly more eloquently, yet with more giggles, listen to the latest episode of The Readers. I would love to know (in the comments below) which books you’ve read that have given you the book tingle, or whatever you would like to call it, from the very start and held you throughout, plus how it feels when you just know a book is going to be just your sort of book. Which books do you feel were really written just for you? Do also share them on Twitter with #BookTingle, let’s get it trending!

*You may have noticed I have not mentioned Rebecca. This is in part because it is the book that got me reading again, so is a whole separate stratosphere and also in part because I wouldn’t have known what a book tingle was if it had hit me square between the eyes.
**These with Catherine Hall are the books, prior to my last tingle with Ms Burton, that I thought of when I was thinking of books where the feeling hit me within a few pages or a chapter. I just knew.

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Savidge Reads’ Books of 2014

For someone who finds making lists an utter joy yet who can never make them concise you may be surprised that there is only one list of my books of the year this year. Normally I will do two; the ten books that I have loved most published this year and the ten from previous years. Well this year I have decided to be a more savage Savidge and only have ten… well twelve. I cheated a little bit again. I was going to do fourteen for the year we are in but could see that might cause potential problems in 2033. So without any more waffle here are my books of 2014. (For full reviews click on the link in the title.)

  1. Mateship with Birds – Carrie Tiffany

Picador Books, 2013, paperback, 224 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

One of the first books I read this year and one of the ones which has stayed with me. On the outskirts of a town somewhere in Australia in the early 1950’s we join two neighbours. Harry owns a dairy farm and spends his days between milking his herd and watching the local wildlife, mainly a family of kookaburra’s, and looking over his past seemingly happy with and yet questioning his lot in life. Betty rents the house next door with her two children Michael and Little Hazel, often wondering what has become of her life and often wondering about Harry. We follow these two characters, Betty’s children, and their weird neighbour Mues over what I thought was a season – though it could be much longer or indeed shorter as Mateship with Birds has a sense of nothing and everything happening all at once, all in the grubby wilds of the countryside.

This book has everything I love in it; the wilds of the countryside (which you might see in a few of my choices), outsiders and a rather wonderfully grubby dirty edge. I will be going book shopping on Friday and will be hunting down a copy of Carrie’s Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living.

  1. The Dig – Cynan Jones

Granta Books, paperback, 2014, fiction, 156 pages, kindly sent by the lovely folk at Fiction Uncovered HQ

In The Dig we follow the lives of two men who live in the same remote countryside and who have met briefly once and who couldn’t be more different. Daniel is a farmer who is struggling both with keeping his farm profitable and running and also with a personal tragedy. I will not give away what because when you find out early on it is like a physical punch. I cried that is all I will say. The other character, who we only know as ‘the big man’ is a much darker kind of fellow; one who trains his dog to kill rats, catches badgers for baiting and has been to prison for something we are unsure of. The question is of course how and why might these two men meet up again?

I never imagined I would have a book about badger bating as one of my books of the year, it even has an evil horse in it, yet for the same reasons I loved everything about Mateship With Birds I loved The Dig (which was also one of Fiction Uncovered’s titles this year, Naomi Wood’s Mrs. Hemmingway would be book number 13 on this list, just saying – and cheating again). It is a book that wonderfully links the rawness of nature to the rawness of emotions and the savage nature of animals to those of men.

  1. The Night Guest – Fiona McFarlane

Sceptre Books, hardback, 2014, fiction, 276 pages, kindly sent by the publishers

Ruth is a widow who has been living by herself on the coast round from Sydney and for a little while and been coping quite well thank you very much. However on and off in the night she has felt pretty sure that there is a tiger who is roaming around her house. She doesn’t know where this tiger comes from or goes to after it visits her and yet while she doesn’t think it wants to harm or eat her, its presence is unnerving to say the least. Especially when she wakes up and wonders if it was ever really there at all, is she losing her marbles?

Another book that I loved very much at the start of the year (and possibly the most beautiful book of the year if you have the UK hardback) and was desperate to talk to anyone and everyone about as it is so twisty and unreliable in many ways – which of course is why I love it. I even made Thomas, my cohost on The Readers, read it and we had a mini book group which you can hear here, though be warned spoilers abound.

  1. A Kind of Intimacy – Jenn Ashworth

Arcadia Books, paperback, 2009, fiction, 283 pages, borrowed from Emma Jane Unsworth (who might never get it back!)

If the first two books had a link of the rawness of nature, these two have the link of the unreliable, dark and twisty. Annie Fairhurst has left her old lonely miserable married life with her husband Will behind her. She wants to start again and so has found herself a new home in the suburbs of a Northern town for herself, and her cat Mr Tips, to start a fresh. She wants to make new friends, have wonderful parties and maybe meet a man like her old love Boris, who rather liked the larger lady like Annie and twice gave her a glimpse of how life could be. She is full of hope for the future, especially when she meets her next door neighbour Neil who she is sure came to her aid once when she was a damsel in distress. Yet this unleashes two things in Annie, firstly the fact that her past is a mystery that keeps rearing its ugly head no matter how hard you try and cover it up, secondly Annie isn’t as stable as she might initially appear nor as truthful or lovely. The plot thickens…

This was loaned to me by the lovely Emma Jane Unsworth (whose Animals would have been joint number 14 with Kerry Hudson’s Thirst, cheating again) as she thought I would like it. Having read it I hope that is meant as a compliment of my tastes in fiction rather than to my style of friendship. Hmmm. Anyway it was a huge hit with me, Emma will never get this book back again and Jenn’s second novel, she is now writing the fourth, Cold Light will be one of my first reads of 2015.

  1. Under The Skin – Michel Faber

Canongate, paperback, 2000 (2011 edition), fiction, 320 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

This is one book I have loved but not actually reviewed yet, the reason for this is that there is a bog old twist that I don’t want to reveal. Here’s the blurb… Isserley spends most of her time driving. But why is she so interested in picking up hitchhikers? And why are they always male, well-built and alone? An utterly unpredictable and macabre mystery, Michel Faber’s debut novel is an outstanding piece of fiction that will stay with you long after you have turned the last page.

I knew the twist but I have to say that didn’t stop me from enjoying this book from start to finish. It is a book that looks at what it is to be a woman in society and what the true meaning of society and humanity are. I will say no more. I did see the film too… I will say no more on that either, ha! I do need to work out how to deal with books with big twists and spoilers in 2015 though as I have a few reviews pending of such books. Any ideas how to deal with this are much welcomed.

  1. Cover – Peter Mendelsund

powerHouse Books, 2014, hardback, nonfiction, 256 pages, brought by Santa for Christmas

The most recently read which is why it might end up being much higher up over time. Either way, Peter Mendelsund was initially a classical pianist, or a recovering one as his bio says, who after the birth of his first child realised he needed a more stable job with a regular income. But what? Well, as it happened he liked design and then his mother knew someone who knew someone at Knopf Books and after a chat, a viewing of his portfolio (which Knopf being pretty bowled over by what Mendelsund calls “shockingly wince-inducing” self taught designs) and some interviews he then became a junior designer. Now he is Associate Art Director there and his book covers are world famous, though you might admittedly not know they were by him. He is one of those wonderful people who make us want to pick up ALL the books, from Lolita to The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo literally. Well, if you live in America, though some have come here too. Cover is his story of how he came to cover books and what doing so means.

A book about books that every book lover should read or own, the end.

  1. Bitter Greens – Kate Forsyth

Allison & Busby, 2013, paperback, fiction, 544 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

My favourite fairytale, and indeed possibly story, of all time is Rapunzel. With Bitter Greens Kate Forsyth weaves a tale of three women to retell it and indeed to write a thrilling love story to it. First is Charlotte-Rose de la Force, who has been exiled from the court of the Sun King Louis XIV after a fall from grace too far (which in those times was saying something) and is banished to live in an Abbey with nuns. Second is Selena Leonelli, once one of the most beautiful women in Italy and even the muse of the Venetian artist Titian. Depicted forever in his paintings she has one fear, time, and how it will take her beauty something she will do anything to keep. Thirdly we have Margherita, a young girl trapped in a tower forever unless she finds a way to escape.

I was in book heaven reading this. I don’t tend to go for historical novels very much, and know very little about the court of Louis XIV but I revelled in it and want to know much more about it. All in all a wonderful, saucy, gripping, brilliantly written, literary romp – pitch perfect storytelling. You can hear me talking to Kate about this and more here.

  1. He Wants – Alison Moore

Salt Publishing, paperback, 2014, fiction, 192 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Lewis is a man who seems to be stuck in a rut. He is at the end of middle age yet not quite on the cusp of old age. He goes and looks after his father, Lawrence, at the old people’s home and yet his daughter, Ruth, comes round every morning to look after him and deliver soup that he actually doesn’t want. He has recently retired as his role as an RE (religious education) teacher yet having been widowed sometime a go he has no one to share his retirement with, just time and his own thoughts. He spends most of his days at home apart from when he goes to visit his second favourite pub, and that is probably how he will go on spending it. What Lewis isn’t expecting is a blast from the past, in the form of an old friend Sydney, to turn up one day and Lewis’ comfortable, if boring from the outside, life is shaken up.

There are some books that leave you feeling both completely uplifted and utterly devastated, all at once. I know it sounds implausible, such a dichotomy of emotions, yet these books are often the ones that leave us feeling the most enriched by the experience. Alison Moore’s He Wants is such a book. I loved this, I loved The Lighthouse; I need to read everything Alison ever writes and will do so. You can hear me talking to Alison about this and more here.

  1. Trespass – Rose Tremain

Vintage Books, hardback, 2010, fiction, 272 pages, inherited from Granny Savidge

This was undoubtedly the year of Rose Tremain and I, even though she didn’t know it – well actually I got to meet her and then she did. Ha! (The American Lover would have been on this list but I thought a title per author was fair, and I promise that is my final cheat!) As it opens we follow a young, rather spoilt, girl Melodie who is struggling to fit in at her knew school and so on a trip out runs away into the countryside where she discovers something horrendous amongst the tranquillity. What she has discovered we have no idea because we are swiftly taken away from this moment into the lives of two pairs of siblings, soon beginning to realise that in some way one or both of these siblings have something to do with whatever it is that poor Melodie discovers, but what and how?

She was one of Granny Savidge’s favourite living authors and Gran always told me I should read her, interestingly saying this would be my way in, she was completely correct. It is such a shame I can’t talk to her about these as we would have had some corking conversations but Gran has certainly left me with a legacy of recommendations. You can hear me talk to Rose Tremain about her books and writing here.

  1. Elizabeth is Missing – Emma Healey

Penguin Viking Books, hardback, 2014, fiction, 288 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

This should have won so many awards. From the start of the novel we meet Maud who, when she is not repeatedly going to the corner shop and buying more (and more) tinned peaches, is always finding notes in her pockets that remind her that her friend Elizabeth is missing. She may sometimes forget the name of the women who come and make her tea or clean her house but with these notes everywhere possible she cannot forget this and she must find out where she went, why her house is empty and why Elizabeth’s son never seems to care. At the start of the novel Maud also discovers a compact mirror, where we are not initially sure, which suddenly brings back the disappearance and mystery of what happened to her sister Sukey 70 years ago.

I just love this book so, so, so much. Emma’s writing is incredible, the way she handles the theme of dementia is beautiful yet honest and so occasionally very funny. Cliché alert but it is really amazing this is her first book, no pressure on the next then? You can hear me talk to Emma about this and much more here. Oh and side note, she would be cross if I didn’t mention it, this is also one of my mother’s favourite books of the year – we discussed it a lot at Christmas. Read it.

  1. A Month in the Country – J. L. Carr

Penguin Modern Classics, paperback, 1980 (2000 edition), fiction, 112 pages, inherited from Gran

Gran left me with a legacy of authors to read and also a legacy of books of which this was one. In A Month in the Country Tom Birkin reflects several decades later on the summer of 1920 when he ended up in the village of Oxgodby for a single month. Here on a mission left by recently deceased spinster Miss Hebron he is being paid, begrudgingly by the Reverend Keach who is only allowing it as Hebron left the church money if he did, to uncover a possible medieval wall painting inside the church. Birkin reflects upon that summer, the place he was in mentally in his life at the time and thinks about the place he was in physically and those who peopled it.

It is really hard to say much about A Month in the Country, as it is essentially a very silent and still yet powerful book, other than it is pretty much book perfection. If I hadn’t had such a (similarily yet more epic) visceral reaction to the next book it would have been my book of the year. You can’t hear me discuss this with Mr Carr as he is dead BUT you can hear me discussing it with Gav, Kate and Rob (some of us might weep) here.

  1. The Narrow Road to the Deep North – Richard Flanagan

Chatto & Windus, hardback, 2014, fiction, 464 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

I never thought a Booker Winner would be my book of the year, especially after the last few years but Richard Flanagan just blew me away with this book. The Narrow Road to the Deep North is essentially the tale of one man’s life with all that befalls him. Alwyn ‘Dorrigo’ Evans is one of the survivors of the Death Railway in Burma where he was a prisoner of war. He was the surgeon, having the strange job of helping people escape death only to then have them healed and sent off to work that was likely to lead to death be it from sickness, exhaustion or torture. He is a man who has had a love affair with this uncle’s wife. It is really these two particular strands of Dorrigo’s life that this novel follows going back and forth developing a life lived, with it joy, despair, loss and love.

Easily the book I have loved the hardest (and therefore was the hardest to write about) this year and will more than likely be one of my all time favourite and most memorable reads. And guess what, yes, you can hear me chatting to Richard about it here (I was such a lucky sausage with interviews this year) and more. Richard’s back catalogue will be being bought by myself over the next few years and devoured.

So that is my list! If you have read any of these let me know what you thought of them. If you haven’t why on earth are you still reading and not running to a bookshop/library, no I don’t care what time it is or if it is a Bank Holiday, and getting them now? If you have made a list of books of the year do let me know, I will have a look at them in 2015. If you haven’t then please share some of your favourites in the comments below, or I will sulk which is no way to end one year and start the next is it?

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Filed under Books of 2014, Random Savidgeness

The Narrow Road to the Deep North – Richard Flanagan

I have recently mentioned the power and intensity that a novella can bring, and indeed have been favouring novellas over longer, most often epic, tome like novels. Yet reading Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, which verges on tome and is definitely epic in scope, has reminded me how much I love getting completely lost in a book for a good long week of reading. Then once finished be left feeling the loss of it, unable to shake it. You see it is one of those books that totally envelops you and also contains everything about the world within its covers. It is therefore going to be one of those books that is a complete nightmare to try and encapsulate everything it does or do justice. (Hence why this is one of the longest reviews I have ever written, despite seven sittings over a week to edit and edit it, do bear with me though as you really need to read this book.)

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Chatto & Windus, hardback, 2014, fiction, 464 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

The Narrow Road to the Deep North is essentially the tale of one man’s life with all that befalls him. Alwyn ‘Dorrigo’ Evans is one of the survivors of the Death Railway in Burma where he was a prisoner of war. He was the surgeon, having the strange job of helping people escape death only to then have them healed and sent off to work that was likely to lead to death be it from sickness, exhaustion or torture. He is a man who has had a love affair with this uncle’s wife. It is really these two particular strands of Dorrigo’s life that this novel follows going back and forth developing a life lived, with it joy, despair, loss and love. This is what makes the book difficult to write about, yet reads so naturally even as it goes back and forth in time. Essentially whilst it is about Dorrigo’s life, it is also these two main strands that have defined him and that our focus is pulled towards.

Flanagan, I think, does something very clever early on as he draws us to both Dorrigo’s elderly years and his early youth very quickly in interweaving bursts. If you are worried you might get confused, as I was so I am not being patronising, you won’t, you differentiate swiftly as you read. Here we are told of something he witnesses as a young man which relates to something in his older years but it also tells us why Dorrigo doesn’t, and therefore we might not want to, consider him a war hero, as Dorrigo is a fantastically and humanly flawed character.

Inexplicably to him, he had in recent years become a war hero, a famous and celebrated surgeon, the public image of a time and a tragedy, the subject of biographies, plays and documentaries. The object of veneration, hagiographies, adulation. He understood that he shared certain features, habits and history with the war hero. But he was not him. He’d just had more success at living than at dying, and there were no longer so many left to carry the mantle for the POWs. To deny the reverence seemed to insult the memory of those who had died. He couldn’t do that. And besides, he no longer had the energy.

Before we have even come to the love story or the horrors of war, we spend time with the fascinating and conflicting character that is Dorrigo. Here is a man who people see as a hero, and who has saved many lives, yet who likes to drink drive and sleep with his wives best friends or his best friend’s wives. He is incredibly likeable is some respects and then utterly reprehensible in others. He combines both good and bad, which is something that we forget that those who die or survive fighting for the good are, we all have good and bad sides be we a victim or perpetrator of war. In fact I think the soul of The Narrow Road to the Deep North is what is good and what is evil, though more of that in a bit.

Here I wanted to say that this novel is like a cow as it has two hearts, then I realised that they have two stomachs and Dr Who has two hearts, then I realised that I should just say that the book really just has two hearts to it. Blimey, that was over complicated, let me explain.

One of the hearts of this novel, no pun intended, is the love story between Dorrigo and Amy. Here again Flanagan creates an interesting dichotomy as we read on. When the affair between Dorrigo and his uncle’s wife starts, after a wonderful meeting in a bookshop, I was thinking ‘you awful pair of saucy buggers’ soon though I was caught up in it. Frequenting readers will know I am not a fan of a love story; I was gripped by this one. Flanagan wonderfully captures the passion and almost obsession that love can form and the reckless monsters it can make us. There is nothing saccharine here. Again I cannot spoil anything but I was rooting for Dorrigo and Amy even though I knew morally I shouldn’t be. Once again Flanagan cleverly makes us question what we see as good and bad behaviour dependent on cause and circumstance.

She wanted to bury her face in those armpits there and then and taste them, bite them, shape into them. She wanted to say nothing and just run her face all over him. She wished she wasn’t wearing that print dress – green, such a bad colour, such a cheap dress, so unflattering and her breasts she wanted up and out not lost and covered up. She watched him, his muscles little hidden animals running across his back, she watched him moving, wanted to kiss that back, those arms, those shoulders, she watched him look up and see her.

One of the things I really admired about The Narrow Road to the Deep North was how whilst a story of Dorrigo Evans’ life we get to see him through other people’s eyes. Above you have the obsessional view of him from Amy, you get his rather blunt and cynical opinion of himself and through characters like Darky Gardiner you also get to see the man he is with his comrades during the war when life is at its hardest and most cruel, just as you do through Nakamura as one of those running the war camps. This also means you get different people’s perception of the war, be they on either side of it, or all the way back in Australia. War is very much the second heart of this novel.

The scenes, and indeed middle section, in the novel that are set on the Death Railway are some of the most devastating that I have ever read. Even thinking about them I genuinely get a shiver up my spine. I hate to use the term that a book was ‘bravely written’ yet I cannot think of any other way to describe Flanagan’s writing at these points. The daily life there in the jungle with the endless back breaking work, the lack of food, the illness, the beatings, the torture, the loss of life are all viscerally depicted. Some of the scenes blow your mind be it with the horror of what occurred, the frank and gruesome nature of some of the surgery Dorrigo must do to save someone, the confronting scenes told by men who like to torture or the moments of love the men show each other as they try and keep their own humanity. Utterly incredible.

As I want to be reasoned with this review and not just bang on about how amazing it is so you think I would have just lapped it anything up, even had Flanagan made Dorrigo sale across on ocean with a talking horse for company, I did have a slight wobble with the books final section. Suddenly Dorrigo’s elderly years go into overdrive and he suddenly goes through a few more devastating things and I did wonder if we needed them. Obviously I can’t give any spoilers but there was one story that made me think ‘really?’ briefly before then something else happened and I was so moved at the end I cried for about the sixth time.

A minor quibble but one I wanted to mention so you know I can see any amazing books flaws, as no book is completely perfect, though this is close. Now, of course, I am worried I haven’t mentioned some of the other amazing things like the Haiku’s that run through the novel and how they accentuate it, or how Dorrigo uses books and literature to work out his place in the world, how the book is constructed in parts that almost mirror each other or discuss some of the other characters that appear in the book but I am in danger of never shutting up. See it really was one minor quibble. Anyway…

As I mentioned earlier I think the main theme of this book is what is good and what is evil. We are taught from an early age that, whichever view you side with, there are goodies and baddies in war. The people who die fighting for the good are untouchable heroes and those who are on the bad side are all villainous and odious. Life is not that black and white and that is what The Narrow Road to the Deep North is really saying through Dorrigo Evans life and all he goes through. He is a war hero and an adulterer. Some of his fellow men suffer and are wonderful people; some are nasty pieces of work. Nakamura heads a prisoner of war camp where abominable things are happening; for him this comes from doing what he thinks is best for his country in the long term and using the enemy to create a better, great and good, future for Japan.

Flanagan looks at the good and the bad in the good and the bad. It is not comfortable and is incredibly confronting, especially in scenes described both on the Death Railway and later some insight into Japan at the time, but it makes us question and think without drip/force feeding us or even giving any answers, as all the best books should.

The journalist said he had done a story on the survivors, had met and filmed them. There suffering, he had said, was terrible and lifelong.
It is not that you know nothing about the war, young man, Dorrigo Evans had said. It is that you have learnt one thing. And war is many things.

The Narrow Road to the Dark North is a book that you experience, one of those books which makes you feel every paragraph emotionally and in your very core. Not only did it introduce me to a period in history, and indeed a place, that I knew almost nothing about; it also made me want to be kinder than I am, note how lucky I am, tell my loved ones I love them more often than I do and reminded me that not a second of life should be wasted because you never know what may come around the next corner. It is a book about war, peace, love, hate, death and life. Yes, it really is one of those life changing and life affirming books, an incredibly written modern masterpiece.

I could go on, I won’t. I will just say you need to read this book. I can see why it won the Booker. It is easily going to be one of my books of the year and I now want to read everything that Richard Flanagan has written. If you want to know more about the book, the background it has with his father (the book is dedicated to him ‘prisoner 335’) and more you can hear me and Richard in conversation here, I nearly blubbed at one point – professional. Who else has read The Narrow Road to the Deep North and what did you make of it? Which of Flanagan’s novels should I read next?

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Filed under Books of 2014, Chatto & Windus, Man Booker, Review, Richard Flanagan

Just Richard Flanagan and I, Having a Chat…

Blimey where have the last two weeks gone? Last week seemed to be taken up with the Green Carnation Prize longlisting meetings and discussions (and all the admin that followed), plus a few author interviews, then I was off back home to the Peak District to stay with my mad aunty Caz and then this week I have been prepping for something else which I can’t talk about yet. This isn’t me trying to be mysterious and coy. I am just waiting to find out what is what. Anyway…

One of the interviews I recorded last week was with the lovely Richard Flanagan for You Wrote The Book, well he only went and won the Man Booker Prize this week! I thought being a bookish lot you might like a listen to it maybe, perhaps? If so the link is here.

I will be telling you all about The Narrow Road to the Deep North on Sunday but in the interim let me just say it is quite, quite amazing. I still can’t quite shake it. Kim of Reading Matters has been telling me to read him for ages and I have wanted to read this one in particular since I saw it discussed on The First Tuesday Book Club with Jennifer, Marieke, Jason and co. I can certainly see what all the talk has been for.

So have a listen if you fancy it. Just because I am nosey though, what are your thoughts on the Booker prize this year, both the lists and the new rules?

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Man Booker 2014 Musings

Unless you were like me, in which case you were far too busy moving furniture, walls and the like, then you all probably saw the longlist for the Man Booker Prize 2014. With its rule changes last year, becoming open to any book written in English anywhere in the world published for the first time between October 2013 and September 2014, the long list was one which many felt would now be an American full house. It doesn’t seem to be the case, yet weirdly it doesn’t seem to be a longlist that is doing very much for me.

Here it is in full in case you too were otherwise engaged and have been since…

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour – Joshua Ferris (Viking)
The Narrow Road to the Deep North – Richard Flanagan (Chatto & Windus)
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves – Karen Joy Fowler (Serpent’s Tail)
The Blazing World – Siri Hustvedt (Sceptre)
J –  Howard Jacobson (Jonathan Cape)
The Wake – Paul Kingsnorth (Unbound)
The Bone Clocks – David Mitchell (Sceptre)
The Lives of Others – Neel Mukherjee (Chatto & Windus)
Us – David Nicholls (Hodder & Stoughton)
The Dog – Joseph O’Neill (Fourth Estate)
Orfeo – Richard Powers (Atlantic Books)
How to be Both –  Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton)
History of the Rain – Niall Williams (Bloomsbury)

Man Booker Five

I have only actually got five of them, I would have had six but I found the Niall Williams gratingly pretentious when I tried to read it a while back, and have read not a one so I can’t judge them on what’s inside yet very little really excites me here. Actually that is not 100% true or fair. I am excited by the Karen Joy Fowler because that is a book I have been wanting to read ever since I saw it on the sadly (and criminally) now defunct Review Show. I have also heard amazing things about the Flanagan in all the right places, from Marieke Hardy to  Kim of Reading Matters. I have also read Mukherjee, Nicholls and Smith before and really, really liked their work. I am also intrigued by the Kingsmith, which would be a marvellous winner as it is a debut and Unbound, who publish it, are a crowd sourced publishers, exciting. Yet I am still not really that excited and really with a prize like the Man Booker I should be.

The Williams-effect might be part of it, I may be judging the books on that. I may also be feeling indifferent to it because a) I am knackered post festival b) Ferris and Mitchell are two authors many people love yet I just simply do not get. It could be that it just all feels terribly white middle classed male (with the exceptions of the women and Mukherjee) and not the exciting, vibrant, diverse list I always hope it is going to be. I also think it is really strange that at present so many (5) of the books aren’t even out, Jacobson not coming out until the 25th of September, it doesn’t seem a list that can yet excite the public does it? And does it mean if the dates don’t change then the publishers are breaking this rule – Each publisher of a title appearing on the longlist will be required to have no fewer than 1,000 copies of that title available in stock within 10 days of the announcement of the longlist. Will they be withdrawn/disqualified? Today it seems about the only exciting thing that might happen from this list.

It makes me wonder if the Man Booker is really the prize for me anymore. Maybe I should just stick to the Women’s Prize (which I find very difficult to call the Bailey’s, and I love that tipple) and Fiction Uncovered as it seems that is where the well written AND diverse voices most seem to be found with very similar prize remits. Maybe I should read a few and reserve judgement? What do you all think?

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