Tag Archives: Susan Barker

Savidge Reads’ Books of 2015 Part One…

So we have hit the penultimate day of 2015, where does the time go? Back by popular demand (well David kindly asked me) is the first of my two lists of the books that I loved most in 2015. Today’s selection for your delectation are the books that I have loved the most this year that were actually published originally before 2015 (yes, even the ones that came out in paperback in 2015 but were in hardback before then) which means some classics have given way to more modern books but this really reflects my tastes in general. More on that another time though. Without further waffle or ado, here are the first twelve books I really, really, really loved in 2015; you can click on the titles to go to my full reviews, with one exception…

11.

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2015 has been a year that has seen me devour and enjoy more graphic novels and memoirs than ever before and I have loved it. Undoubtedly that love was started this year with The Encyclopaedia of Early Earth by Isabel Greenberg which combines history, myths and fairytales (with a slightly wonky twist) to create a wonderful visual world of Vikings, giants, gods, eskimo’s and more and celebrates the marvels of great stories and wonderful storytelling. A delight from start to finish.

10 (=).

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If you’d told me back at the start of 2015 that one of my books of the year would involve giant mutant preying grasshoppers /praying mantises then I would have laughed in your face. This would have been a) cruel and b) completely wrong. Grasshopper Jungle is a thrilling, gripping and entertaining rollercoaster of a read that looks at love, sexuality, friendship and how to survive if mutant killer insects who only want to breed and eat take over the world. What more could you ask for?

10 (=).

From the off, and indeed throughout, the world in Louise O’Neill’s Only Ever Yours is, to be frank, pretty f***ed up. (I honestly tried quite hard to not use ‘the f bomb’ but it is the only word that seems apt.) Girls are now bred, yes bred, for three reasons. They can become a companion to the men in society who can afford it and have babies, which will only be boys as these girls have been bred to be breeders of the male line; they can become a concubine, and have sex (with no babies) with all the men in society who can afford it; or they can become chastity’s and shave their heads, wear black gowns and raise more manufactured young girls to keep the cycle ticking along. See, I told you, f***ed up, and that is only the beginning. I have a feeling Louise O’Neill is one of those authors whose careers we are just going to watch grow and grow and grow. Atwood, watch out, ha!

9.

Before I read it, I had some really odd preconceived ideas about H. G. Well’s The Invisible Man. First up I thought that it was a tome of some several hundred pages, wrong, it is a novella. Secondly I thought that it was set in the 1970’s (impossible as it was written in 1897) and involved some old man in a mackintosh who smoked, wrong, that is just something I naively surmised from an old 70’s edition of the book my mother had on her shelves. Thirdly I didn’t think I would enjoy it in any way shape or form, so wrong. What I got was an incredibly dark and sinister novel that suddenly becomes both incredibly moving and incredibly disturbing as you read on. Naturally with that in mind, I absolutely loved this book.

8.

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Imagine if Thomas Hardy and Cormac McCarthy had a bastard lovechild… He would be Benjamin Myers in my humble opinion and I think Beastings testifies that notion. I almost don’t feel I need tos say more, but I will. We know it is raining, we know that a young woman has fled the house she was living in with a baby that isn’t hers, we also have the sense that both her and the baby were in danger. We soon learn that she is being followed, although hounded/stalked sounds more sinisterly appropriate, and is heading for a secret island somewhere off the coast. Because on an island in the ocean no-one can sneak up on you. The question is if she can get through the forests and mountains of Cumbria and head to the ocean without being caught and without hardly any supplies. And with that, we are off…

7.

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I only recently devoured Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None yet it shot straight into my top ten without hesitation. Ten strangers are sent to an island under false pretenses, they are soon all accused of murder or implicated in a death, then they start to die one by one following the pattern of an old nursery rhyme. The premise is impossible, yet as Agatha Christie’s fantastic novel unfolds we soon come to learn that anything is possible, no matter how chilling or unbelievable it might first appear. An utterly stupendous thriller, once you have read it you understand why it is the biggest selling murder mystery in the world, ever.

6.

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Sometimes all I want as a reader is a bloody good story. I want a twisting plot, characters that walk of the page and that you love, hate or preferably a bit of both. I want mystery and intrigue. I want to be taken to a world I know nothing about and get lost in it and its entire atmosphere. I can be a right demanding so and so however Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist delivered all this to me in abundance as it took me on a gothic journey with Nella as she walked onto the threshold of Brant house in Amsterdam 1686.

5.

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2015 has also been a year where memoirs have been a hit, in several cases centring around grief and this is one of those. H is for Hawk is an incredibly special kind of read, which all the above culminates towards, simply put it is a generously open, honest and brutal yet beautiful book. Helen Macdonald takes us completely into her life and her world at a time when she was at her most broken and vulnerable and shares that with us in all its technicolour splendour of emotions. You will laugh, you will cry and you will have felt incredibly privileged to have spent time in the company of Helen, Mabel the Goshawk and the writer T.H. White.

4.

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Until this year I had never read a word of Patricia Highsmith’s, well don’t I feel a fool after reading this. Deep Water is one of the most entertaining, snarky, camply dark, vicious and twisted psychological thrillers I have read. It is also one of the most unusual as the reader watches a sociopath come to the fore from their normally meek mild mannered self… and we egg him on and like him, even understanding him oddly, the whole time. It is a fascinating insight into the mind of a killer, if this is a prime example of what Highsmith fondly described as “my psychopath heroes”, I can’t wait to meet the rest.

3.

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It seems that 2015 was the year of insects in fiction for me, this time with bees and heaven forefend ones that talk. From this alone I should have had some kind of anaphylactic shock to this book (see what I did there) however I was completely won over by the story of Flora as she works her way through and up the hive in Laline Paull’s wondrous debut The Bees. I have been talking about this book ever since and also been boring as many people as possible with the fascinating facts I learnt about these winged beings as I read. A book which for me had it all; brilliant writing, fantastic pace, fantastic facts and a real heart looking at class, religion and women’s rights.

2.

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Now then, this is the book I have yet to review and yet is a book which took over my life as I was enravelled in the whole life of another man, Logan Mountstuart. A man which I am still struggling to believe isn’t real as his diaries from 1923 – 1998, which make up William Boyd’s Any Human Heart, take us through school romps, to wild affairs, marriages, more affairs, wars and gossip with famous people through the decades and give us not only a vivid encounter with the recent history of Britain and its endeavours (which take us all over the world) but celebrate the lives of us strange folk and the power of the pen and the written word. Ruddy marvellous and a complete and utter nightmare to review hence why I haven’t managed as yet. You can hear me talking about it here though.

1.

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I talked about book tingles earlier in the year, that wonderful feeling you get when you read a book and the words just wash over you and you know everything in this book in front of you is going to encapsulate everything you love about reading. Carys Davies’ The Redemption of Galen Pike had that for me within paragraphs of it’s very first story. In this collection we are taken to places all over the world, to all walks of life and never given the story we expect in the beginning but something so much more; be it funny, dark or magical. It was a book that arrived completely new to me, no hype or anything and completely bowled me over. I adore this book with all my heart, it brought joy to my beardy face for the whole time I read it.

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So there we are the first half of my books for the year. I do feel like I should give some honourable mentions to Susan Barker’s The Incarnations, Susan Hill’s I’m The King of the Castle and Kirsty Logan’s The Rental Heart, but that will be deemed as cheating. Let me know your thoughts on those in my first list you have read and do pop and see my next list tomorrow. What have been some of your books of 2015?

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Filed under Book Thoughts, Books of 2015, Random Savidgeness

The Incarnations – Susan Barker

Many of you may know, as being so excited I mentioned it a few times, I had the joy of judging Fiction Uncovered earlier this year. Over the next eight weeks I am going to be sharing my thoughts with you on the winners, one winner per week. First up is Susan Barker’s stunning third novel The Incarnations which in just under 500 pages takes you on an epic journey from China in 2008, to five points in its history, going as far back as AD 632 and tells of two souls destined to keep meeting. Intrigued? You should be…

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Transworld Books, paperback, 2015, fiction, 477 pages, kindly submitted by the publisher for Fiction Uncovered

Beijing, 2008 and taxi driver Wang has started to receive mysterious and strange letters from someone who claims to have known Wang and been a part of his world not only in this life but also in five other previous lives throughout China’s dynasties. Worryingly this stranger seems to have a detailed view about his life in the present, not only where he lives with his wife and daughter, but also some of the secrets that Wang has been trying to keep hidden. As Wang reads through the letters and the many supposed lives he has already lived, his life in the here and now starts to change and unravel all at once. This may be a horrendous time for Wang yet it is a wonderful time for us readers as we get sent into China’s many pasts, and the stories that are revealed there, and also have the added thrill of following Wang as he tries to discover the (actually very creepy) ‘Watcher’ and just what it is that they want.

I breathed your scent of cigarettes and sweat. I breathed you in, tugging molecules of you through my sinuses and trachea, and deep into my lungs. Your knuckles were white as bone as you gripped the steering wheel. I wanted to reach above the headrest and touch your thinning hair. I wanted to touch your neck.

What is quite hard to describe unless you have read the book yourself (and then it is still quite tricky) is how many wonderful layers Barker creates in The Incarnations. We have Beijing in 2008 as it gears up to the Olympics, where Wang and his family live a hand to mouth existence despite his father and (deliciously wicked) step mother living in the lap of luxury not far away, another layer being the mystery as to why Wang has shunned their life and indeed has a tempestuous relationship with them. We also have the layers of Wang’s past from his childhood, teens, twenties and early thirties and some of the stories he has kept hidden from those he loves as well as he can. The way this all unfolds creates a fascinating view of modern China and various parts of its society, from the noodle bars on the streets to the luxury penthouses above.

If that wasn’t a fictional feast enough we have the addition five layers of time periods over 1,000 years of China’s history, where in each we get a very different story and so try and work out how the two souls the Watcher claims to be themselves and Wang will find each other. We have peasants and sorceresses in the Tang Dynasty, AD 632; two escapees in the desert during the Jin Dynasty, 1213; a group of the Emperor’s tortured and mutilated concubines in the Ming Dynasty, 1542; sailors and pirates in the Qing Dynasty, 1836; and a group of reactionary school girls in the People’s Republic of China, 1966. I told you it was a feast, and if you think this all sounds terribly confusing  I promise you it’s not, its crafted brilliantly, you’ll gulp it all down and be enamoured with every new cast of characters you meet whatever their intentions and tales.

One hundred serving eunuchs scurry from the peripheries of the Hall of Literary Brilliance, remove the silver-domed plate lids and carry them away. What a feast! The Emperor licks his lips and points at a dish of noodles. The Eunuch Food-taster cries, ‘Appraising the viands!’ and pincers some dangling threads of noodles with his chopsticks. The Eunuch Food-taster nibbles, nods that the noodles are unpoisoned, and the Emperor proceeds to eat. Concubine What’s Her Name hovers out of eye shot, at the shoulder of His Majesty’s fox-fur-trimmed robes. Concubine Meek and Timid. Oh how ashamed of her I am. But to behave in any other manner is to provoke his wrath. To dine with the Emperor Jiajing is not to eat oneself but to stand beside him, encouraging him and praising him for every mouthful he masticates. A sip of elk-horn and deer-penis brewed tea necessitates a cry of, ‘Oh how this revives the blood, enhances potency, O Emperor of Ten Thousand Years!’

What is incredible is that in each of the periods of China’s history we visit we are completely engulfed, so vivid is Barker’s description. It takes a considerable amount of work for any author to build a modern world or a single historical one, let alone a modern one and five more in the past that are each fully formed and capture you in their detail. Through her prose Barker treats you to the smells, tastes, voices and senses of that time; from the food that they eat, the clothes they wear and the sex they have (this is a very sensual book in many ways) to the politics of the time or in many cases the dictatorships. I was completely bowled over by this and revelled in the descriptions that we are treated to, be it the darker sides of life in each time or the more titillating.

‘Impoliteness!’ she scolds. ‘One mustn’t spit the Jade Liquor as though it scalds the tongue. One must swallow and smile.’ After twenty years of whoredom, Madam Plum Blossom’s knowledge is as boundless as the sea. ‘Men have all sorts of peccadilloes,’ she tells me. ‘Some men like to Penetrate the Red during a woman’s moon cycle, or piddle on a woman out of the Jade Watering Spout. Some men like to poke a woman in the back passage, which is called Pushing the Boat Upstream.’

That paragraph not only shows that what I said about there being sex in the book is true, it also highlights how playful, funny and entertaining The Incarnations often is. Sex is not in the book simply for the sake of it however. It is often used to highlight characters behaviour, as a powerful tool or weapon when needed or most importantly to discuss sexuality. The fluidity of sexuality is one of the novels main themes, as is the metaphor of sexuality being or equalling freedom for many. Sexuality also links in with one of the other main themes of the novel which is love in all its forms. From familial to passionate, from friendship to that fine line of hatred and of course the question of soul mates.

Early in The Incarnations we are told that ‘History taps you on the shoulder, breathes its foggy thousand-year-old breath down your neck… But you pretend not to hear.’  I find the idea of how history and past lives, be they linked to ours or not (to our knowledge at least) can form us even in ways we aren’t aware of in the slightest. I think you would be hard pushed to find a book that looks at this idea in depth in a more wonderfully written or inventive way; especially one with such a sense of gusto, adventure and storytelling.

I was mesmerised by The Incarnations and loved it from start to finish. Barkers’ writing has a sense of darkness, comedy, history and adventure whilst also being a thought provoking, intelligent and sophisticated novel too. It is also one of those brilliant instances where it completely transfixes you in a fictional world and then provides you with an urge to go and read more. I now want to go off and not only read Susan Barker’s earlier two novels, I also want to dig out some Murakami (did I mention there were grooms turned into chickens and ghosts in this book?) and go and find lots of books on China’s history. If you have been pondering what to read next, look no further than this book.

Has anyone else read The Incarnations or indeed any of Susan’s earlier novels? I would love to hear your thoughts on them if so. I would also love any recommendations on (entertaining and insightful) books on China’s history too please thank you very much.

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Filed under Black Swan Books, Books of 2015, Fiction Uncovered, Review, Susan Barker, Transworld Publishing

On the Radio, Whoa, Oh, Oh, On the Radio…

Just over a week ago, which seems such a long time ago now weirdly, I had the pleasure of doing something I have always dreamed of… Live Radio. (If any of you are thinking ‘well he’s got the face for radio’ you are very mean and naughty, ha!) Last Sunday afternoon Fiction Uncovered took over Resonance FM and took to the airwaves and I got to be one of hosts and also interviewed on a few sessions. Weirdly I found being interviewed much tougher than doing the interviews. Anyway I thought you guys might want to listen in to some of the interviews, discussions and debates that took place…

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First up myself and my fellow judge, who has become a really good mate, Matt Bates were interviewed about judging the prize by Matt Thorne. We talked about the process of reading, judging, whittling down to the longlist and the final eight giving you a bit of insight into those titles too. We also talked about the state of British fiction and bookshops which Matt, being the buyer for WHSmith Travel stores in stations and airports, had some fascinating insight into. You can hear it here.

Next Matt Bates stayed on air to interview Susan Barker about her wonderful Fiction Uncovered winning novel The Incarnations, which I will be reviewing very soon. Listen here.

I was then in the host seat, and got to say the immortal words you dream of ‘and that was a song by…’, to interview David Whitehouse about his Fiction Uncovered winning novel The Mobile Library which is the best fairytale for adults I have read in quite some time AND a must read if you love books, which of course you all do.

Nikki Bedi chaired a really interesting and topical debate with Danuta Kean, Nikesh Shulka and Naomi Frisby (who blogs at Writes of Woman) about diversity in publishing and proved a fascinating discussion which I only heard snippets of so need to listen into myself for the full chat.

I then came back on air to chat to Lavie Tidhar about his brilliant, harrowing and thought provoking Fiction Uncovered novel A Man Lies Dreaming where we discussed how humour can be used both to combat and highlight the horrors of history, or in this case and alternative history.

Where do great writers live and the importance of landscape was the next discussion as Matt Thorne hosted a chat with Catherine Hall, Alex Wheatle and Luke Brown. I love books about the English countryside as you know and was busy with a sandwich and bag of crisps while they were recording so will be catching up with this one very soon.

I was back being grilled again by Matt Thorne, along with Naomi Frisby about the state of reviewing, blogging and social media and how books and writers are, or sometimes aren’t, excelling in the digital world. I almost got myself in trouble twice in this part of the show, but I think Naomi and I did a good job in talking about the blogosphere and the digital world.

The penultimate discussion was with Sophie Rochester and Rosa Anderson who co-founded Fiction Uncovered about five years of the prize. Again I missed this one as I was having a coffee so will be catching up with this one very soon.

Finally Matt Thorne was joined by Bethan Roberts to discuss her Fiction Uncovered winning novel Mother Island which I think is a brilliant suburban thriller and family drama which I will share my thoughts on soon. Listen to them discussing it here.

So there you have it, a good few hours of bookish chatter, discussion and debate for your listening tackle. I am not sure when they will go on iTunes and be podcasts but you can play these sneakily with your headphones on at your desks in work. Oh go on, we all do it… Oh. Just me then. Whoops.

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Filed under Fiction Uncovered, Random Savidgeness

And The Fiction Uncovered Winners 2015 Are…

I am thrilled to announce that after many weeks of wonderful reading and re-reading, some brilliant debate and lots of laughter with three other judges who are all stars (India Knight, Matthew Bates and Cathy Galvin) and now some of my new favourite bookish chums, we have chosen the eight winners of Fiction Uncovered 2015. They are…

  • The Incarnations – Susan Barker (Transworld)
  • The Redemption of Galen Pike – Carys Davies (Salt)
  • The Offering – Grace McCleen (Sceptre)
  • Significance – Jo Mazelis (Seren Books)
  • Mother Island – Bethan Roberts (Chatto & Windus)
  • A Man Lies Dreaming – Lavie Tidhar (Hodder & Stoughton)
  • Animals – Emma Jane Unsworth (Canongate Books)
  • Mobile Library – David Whitehouse (Picador)

To whittle them down from fifteen marvellous books was no easy feat at all, it took quite a few hours of pleading, threats, swearing and it all kicking off – okay I am joking, it did take several hours of debate and was much, much harder than I anticipated. The eight books are corkers from a very strong longlist. To find out more about the books and the authors do head over to the Fiction Uncovered website here as I am off for a celebratory sherry or three. I will be reviewing the winners and the longlist in due course though…

You might think that was it now, no more Fiction Uncovered 2015 for me, but you’d be wrong. There’s events being planned for the books and authors over the summer which will be announced in due course. More imminently, in fact this Sunday, there will be Fiction Uncovered FM taking over your speakers on Resonance FM from 12pm – 5pm, guess who they have gone and asked to co-host? So if you want a wonderful five hours of book chat co-hosted by a slightly rogue Savidge DJ then tune into that. In the meantime what do you make of our list of the final eight; which have you read, what did you think and which are you going to read? Obviously the correct answer is all of them!

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The Fiction Uncovered Longlist 2015

I am thrilled, because this is the first time they have done it and I have keeping it secret for a few weeks, to be able to share with you the Fiction Uncovered Longlist 2015. After what has been a good few months of ‘extreme reading’ here are fifteen books that we judges (Matt Bates, Cathy Galvin and myself chaired by India Knight) are all very keen that you go and read, right now…

  • The Incarnations – Susan Barker (Transworld)
  • The Stray American – Wendy Brandmark (Holland Park Press)
  • The Redemption of Galen Pike – Carys Davies (Salt)
  • Dear Thief – Samantha Harvey (Jonathan Cape)
  • Wittgenstein Jr – Lars Iyer (Melville House UK)
  • The Way Out – Vicki Jarrett (Freight)
  • The Offering – Grace McCleen (Sceptre)
  • The Spice Box Letters – Eve Makis (Parthian Books)
  • Significance – Jo Mazelis (Seren Books)
  • Beastings – Benjamin Myers (Bluemoose Books)
  • The Four Marys – Jean Rafferty (Saraband)
  • Mother Island – Bethan Roberts (Chatto & Windus)
  • A Man Lies Dreaming – Lavie Tidhar (Hodder & Stoughton)
  • Animals – Emma Jane Unsworth (Canongate Books)
  • Mobile Library – David Whitehouse (Picador)

Indis has said “It is absolutely thrilling to have found such brilliant books, across such a wide variety of genres, and from authors that live and write all over the country. These are fantastic writers who deserve to be household names.” I agree it is a very diverse and interesting list, though I am probably biased somewhat but I think the list is a really eclectic one (well, I can tell you that for definite having read them all) and it is going to be rather difficult to whittle them down to a final eight for June the 18th. I have to say so far the judging process has been a real joy with lots and lots of laughing and delightful booky chatter, maybe the final meeting is where the gloves will come off? Ha!

For more information on all the books do visit Fiction Uncovered’s website here. I am off to go and do some more re-reading, in the meantime I would love your thoughts both on the books on the list (have you read any, are there any you are going to hunt out) and also the list itself. I’m very excited to hear what people think of it!

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