Tag Archives: Susan Hill

The Essex Serpent – Sarah Perry

In my last review I talked about the importance of books that make you face, head on, some of the awful things that are going on in the world, the power of fiction being able to send you into the heads of those you wouldn’t choose to be for various reasons. Today I want to talk to you about the supreme power at the opposite end of the spectrum that fiction can have, the ability to take you away to another place, time and world wrapped in escapism and joy that is one of the main reasons that we read. Sarah Perry’s wonderful second novel, The Essex Serpent, is just such a book and one which (as easily one of my favourite books of the year so far) I will be urging you all to go and escape with it as soon as you can.

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Serpents Tail, 2016, hardback, fiction, 419 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Winter comes like a blow to the back of his neck: he feels it penetrate his shirt and go into his bones. The good cheer of drink is gone, and he’s comfortless there in the dark – he looks for his coat, but clouds hide the moon and he is blind. His breath is slow, the air is full of pins; the marsh at his feet all at once is wet, as if something out there has displaced the water. Nothing, it’s nothing, he thinks, patting about for his courage, but there it is again: a curious still moment as if he were looking at a photograph, followed by a frantic uneven motion that cannot merely be the tug of the moon on the tides. He thinks he sees – is certain he sees – the slow movement of something vast, hunched, grimly covered over with rough and lapping scales; then it is gone.
In the darkness he grows afraid. There is something there, he feels it, biding its time – implacable, monstrous, born in water, always with an eye cocked in his direction.

The small close knit town of Aldwinter is in shock, as it seems that the Essex Serpent has returned after over 200 years when it last infamously terrorised the area. One of the townsmen has been found dead, with a petrified look upon his face, and soon enough fear is running rife through the area as cattle and people start to be reported as missing. This is not good news for William Ransom, the local rector, who refuses to believe (or cannot believe) that such a thing exists and refuses to name it as anything other than ‘the Trouble’, yet his congregation are afraid and starting to question his preaching further unsettling the town.

Further afield though nothing could be more exciting, or indeed more needed, for recently widowed Cora Seaborne than a possible adventure. With a fascination for fossils and palaeontology from the moment she hears of the ‘Strange News Out of Essex’ (which is also the name of the first part of the book, each part gets a wonderfully tempting title in a delicious nod to the Victorian sensation novels of the day) she sets off in search of it and any other prehistoric hints in the marshes and estuaries. This being bad news for Dr Luke Garrett, who loves Cora and her rousing spirit and believes that after her grieving there might be a chance for love. But who could second guess such a woman?

‘I daresay you have heard tell of the Essex Serpent, which once was the terror of Henham and Wormingford, and has been seen again?’ Delighted, Cora said that she had not. ‘Ah,’ said Taylor, growing mournful, ‘I wonder if I ought not trouble you, what with ladies being of a fragile disposition.’ He eyed his visitor, and evidently concluded that no woman in such a coat could be frightened by mere monsters.

Cora Seaborne is one of Sarah Perry’s many masterstrokes within The Essex Serpent. It is hard to create a women of heightened independence in the Victorian period, ironic seeing as who the period was named after, who is believable. More often than not you have to go for the cheeky buxom wench like Nancy in Oliver Twist or some monstrous matriarch. However Cora is a widow which both gives her the means to have the independence that she desires yet at what cost? For as we read on behind Cora’s seemingly excitable and joyful exterior there is a vulnerable side and a darker story hidden away. I loved this because it adds layers to her as a character and also to the plot with an additional mystery. Not many authors can pull this off.

Having scoured its river for kingfishers and its castle for ravens, Cora Seaborne walked through Colchester with Martha on her arm, holding an umbrella above them both. There’d been no kingfisher (‘On a Nile cruise, probably – Martha, shall we follow them?’), but the castle keep had been thick with grave-faced rooks stalking about in their ragged trousers. ‘Quite a good ruin,’ said Cora, ‘But I’d have liked to’ve seen a gibbet, or a miscreant with pecked-out eyes.’  

Yet a novel about an independent woman in the Victorian era would almost be too easy for our author, which is one of the things I loved about its predecessor. Perry pushes the boundaries of what we expect, she is all about the deeper layers, rather like the estuaries we visit in the story, and the cheeky winks and nods in this book. Why simply have a mysterious tale of a possible monster and the rector and female amateur scientist who try to hunt it down, with a hint of potential illicit romance and shenanigans thrown in for good measure (though that is a perfect book right there) when you can do more? Why not throw in the question of platonic love vs. sexual attraction and see what can be weaved and unravelled out of that?

Then, if you’re in the mood which Perry clearly was, why not look at other things going on in society then that are still conundrums now. Questions about feminism, class, science vs. religion? Sarah Perry hasn’t just made Cora’s love interests be a rector and a doctor for your reading pleasure, although it adds to it hugely so of course she has, there is more going on here. In doing so certain questions and dynamics make the book brim all the further. Why is it that Luke Garrett is so desperate to mend physical broken hearts after all? Why will William not be ruled by his head or his heart? These all lead off to a wonderful dark subplots that I won’t spoil but I bloody loved.

I also mentioned those lovely winks and nods didn’t I? Well these are further proof of what a superb mind can use to create such a superb book. In the 1890’s sensation novels were all the rage and Sarah Perry takes these wonderful books and pays homage to them and also plays with them. She takes many of the standard glorious Gothic tropes and waves at them joyously. Possible monsters in eerie boggy marshes (which are written so atmospherically) and bodies petrified to death take you to the world of Sherlock Holmes. The Woman in White, and indeed the Woman in Black, are winked at with a Woman in Blue – which in the authors notes are also a nod to Maggie Nelson’s Bluets which made me want to squeeze Sarah to bits with unbridled love and may get me arrested or a restraining order. Servants clearly smitten with their mistresses give a hint of Rebecca. Okay, I know that some of those are the wrong era but two are gothic and some of my favourites. Rather like her writing prose in contemporary English rather than of the period these all add to the atmosphere and yet keep it fresh and different.

She also flip reverses (if any of you now have that Blazin’ Squad hit single in your head I now love you) many of these tropes on their head. When is the rector ever a sex object or the rich widow doing anything but being a bitch or scheming to marry and kill off another husband, for example? Sarah Perry also uses some wonderful knowing hindsight between the reader and herself with them. A prime example is Cora’s son who everyone thinks is just a bit sinister and odd, who we all see as clearly being autistic and misunderstood – well I thought so. Sarah is enjoying writing this book as much as you are reading it and there is a communication going on between author and reader that is rare and wonderful when it happens. Suffice to say all these additional layers, elements and nods are what takes The Essex Serpent from being a brilliant book to being a stand out fantastic book. Goodness me I loved it. Can you tell?

I don’t normally advice that you judge a book by its cover; I will make an exception in the case of The Essex Serpent, for its insides are as wonderful as its outsides. It is a beautifully and intrinsically crafted and tempts, beguiles and hooks its readers into a vivid and ever so sensational and gothic world. I think it is a wonder. It is a ripping great yarn and also so much more. Delicious. As I said at the beginning Sarah Perry has written a novel which has been one of the highlights of my reading year and after the wonders of this and After Me Comes the Flood I simply cannot wait to see what she comes up with next.

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Filed under Books of 2016, Review, Sarah Perry, Serpent's Tail

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

I’m The King of the Castle – Susan Hill

Writing about certain books can sometimes be a trepidatious thing. Susan Hill’s I’m the King of the Castle is one such example for various reasons. There is the fact that this has become a modern classic to the extent that is had been on the English syllabus for years, which also adds the threat that some youths might head here and think I know what the heck I am talking about and use me as part of their exam answers (if only the internet had been in existence when I was at school, I am so old) or coursework. Then there is the fact that Susan Hill is one of my favourite contemporary writers and so I put pressure on myself. Really I have to ignore all that, think ‘sod it and hurrah’ and, because this is a blog diarising my reading thoughts and adventures and not some lit-crit site, just write about the book – which I loved.

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Penguin Books, 1970 (2014 edition), paperback, fiction, 224 pages, bought by my good self

When Joseph Hooper inherits the decaying familial home, a Victorian mansion called Warings, he feels he is finally the ruler of his domain. This all changes when his father advertises for someone to come and take care of the house and keep an eye on Edmund (despite the cold relationship they have he can clearly see Edmund is turning into an odious little oik) at the same time. The arrival of Mrs Helena Kingshaw is a double triple blessing as not only is she ideal she is also very becoming and has a son, Charles, who can become a new playmate for his own boy. Yet Edmund has taken a similar stance to Warings, with his father away so often he believes he is in charge of the house, likes it that way and isn’t keen on change.

‘Oh – what is it, what have you found?’ She was anxious that he should like it here, should very soon feel at home.
Kingshaw thought, I didn’t want to come, I didn’t want to come, it is one more strange house in which we do not properly belong. But he had dropped the lump of plasticine. ‘Nothing, it’s nothing. It’s only a pebble.’
Walking behind his mother, into the dark hall, he managed to open out the scrap of paper.
‘I DIDN’T WANT YOU TO COME HERE’ was written.
‘Now let me show you to your rooms,’ said Mr Joseph Hooper.
Kingshaw stuffed the message fearfully into his trouser pocket.

Edmund plots and creates as many cunning and diabolical horrors as he can (one involving a stuffed crow was my personal favourite) to try and get rid of Charles, not understanding that Charles would like nothing more to run away from this place and soon starts to plan just that. After a first humiliating attempt to flee, Charles soon ventures into (the perfectly named) Hang Wood with Edmund in hot pursuit. Once lost in Hang Wood the roles of power reverse as they become lost and cracks in Edmund’s domineering persona start to break. But can Charles resist revenge and can a bully like Edmund ever really change?

Many people say that I’m the King of the Castle is a case study in the cruelty that children can inflict on each other. (And kids can be bloody horrid to one another, I was bullied mercilessly by some horrors –who weirdly couldn’t understand why I didn’t want to befriend them on Facebook a few decades later anyway, this isn’t a therapy session for me it’s a review.) In some ways, particularly with Edmund Hopper who I thoroughly enjoyed despising,  that is the case but I think there is a lot more going on with this novel than just that.

In Edmund and Charles I felt Susan Hill creates the typical bully and the typical, and unfortunate, victim. The question it made me ponder were if children are naturally born into those roles in life or if the environment they are brought up in, be it place or how they are treated. Yes that old chestnut, the nature vs. nurture debate. Is Edmund a rotten so and so because he is allowed to be and because his father had a bad relationship with his father? Has Charles been molly coddled by his mother as he has been moved from pillar to post? Is it class? Or were these two boys just born with brains that developed their psyches into such? I can’t answer any of those questions (sorry to all you students hoping to copy and paste, ha, I admire your tenacity though) but it didn’t make me think about them.

A theme I picked up strongly on, and I actually think is the more powerful message from this book (aside from don’t be a bullying menace) is the fact that children are too often not listened to enough. There is the old adage that children should be seen and not heard, this takes that further to a level of neglect or naivety as two parents ignore their children’s thoughts and feelings too busy caught up in their own. Yet how often does this happen in real life? Hill amplifies the expression children hear of ‘not now’ as Mr Hooper and Mrs Kingshaw are blinded by love/lust, or potentially money and status, I could never quite work Mrs Kingshaw out. How is a child left feeling when they aren’t heard?

This is one of Susan Hill’s masterstrokes with I’m the King of the Castle she has an incredible insight and empathy with younger people. Unlike the parents of the piece she doesn’t patronise, simplify or underestimate the lengths that both of these boys, who are polar opposites in character, will go to. She also looks at those moments of pure darkness and those of pure kindness without shying away from them and the effect of all this is quite something.

The boy looked towards the bed. His skin was already dead, he thought, it is old and dry. But he saw that the bones of the eye-sockets, and the nose and jaw, showed through it, and gleamed. Everything about him, from the stubble of hair down to the folded line of sheet, was bleached and grey-ish white.
‘All he looks like,’ Edmund Hooper said, ‘is one of his dead old moths.’

Finally, and most importantly for me, what made me love this novel is that it is overall simply a brilliant dark gothic yarn. It has a grumbling old house complete with collections of old moths, it has a brooding wood, it has an evil cunning child, psychological warfare, vengeful crows, a wicked sense of humour and an ending that will leave you feeling emotionally bruised and with questions that cause a sense of unease to linger on your psyche. It is not a book that wants to be nicely wrapped up and dependent on its reader will leave you feeling hopeful or a small sense of dread at what might come after. I was in the latter category, which probably says quite a lot about me.

Having read it I can completely understand why I’m the King of the Castle has become a modern classic and why it is being taught all around the UK, though I am thinking most parents should be given this around their first child’s ninth birthday too, just as a small warning. Ha! Not only is it a fantastic gothic story, it is one of the best insights into being and understanding a child’s mind that I have read. Yup, even better than Lord of the Flies, possibly because it is on a smaller and I think more intense scale. If you haven’t read it yet then I strongly recommend that you do.

I should add I chose this book for an episode of Hear Read This, if you would like to listen to Rob, Kate, Gavin and my additional thoughts head here. Who else has read I’m the King of the Castle and what did you make of it? Have any of you had to study that and how was it compared to reading it because you just wanted to?

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Filed under Books of 2015, Hear... Read This, Penguin Books, Penguin Classics, Review, Susan Hill

Other People’s Bookshelves #57 – Sandra Danby

Hello and welcome to the latest Other People’s Bookshelves, a series of posts set to feed into the natural filthy book lust we all feel and give you a fix through other people’s books and shelves. This week we are having a nosey around the shelves of author Sandra Danby who spends her time between the UK and Spain, though has this weekend kindly opened her doors to us in her UK home but do grab some polverones to have with your horchata, which she kindly brought back on her last trip. Now that we have helped ourselves to those we can get to know Sandra and her bookshelves a little bit better…

I grew up on a small dairy farm at the bleak edge of East Yorkshire where England meets the North Sea. I started reading early and have never stopped. When I was eight a friend of my mother’s emigrated to New Zealand and their house was emptied of furniture, I was given a small oak bookcase. My very own bookcase. I shared a room with my older sister, so this was a really big deal. I filled it with Puffin books [I was a member of the Puffin Club], alphabetized: I still organise my bookshelves the same way. And some of those first Puffin books are still on my shelf, the faded letters still visible on the spines. The only difference is that after +35 years as a journalist, I now write fiction as well as read it.

Orwell, Murakami, Murdoch

Do you keep all the books you read on your shelves or only your favourites, does a book have to be REALLY good to end up on your shelves or is there a system like one in one out, etc?

I wish I had the space to keep everything I read. I do keep favourites, series, anything I know I will want to read again. Everything else is donated to Oxfam, I believe firmly in recycling books and buy quite a lot of mine second-hand either from my local Oxfam shop or via Oxfam online. I review books for my blog [www.sandradanby.com] and so receive advance e-books which tend to pile up on my Kindle, I do have a periodic clear out and delete the ones I know I will never want to read again. If I read a book on Kindle and I absolutely love it, I buy the paperback. I buy hardbacks of my favourite authors, the ones I know will be 5* – Kate Atkinson, Sarah Waters, PD James, Jane Smiley, Hilary Mantel, William Boyd.

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?

I have a to-read shelf in our spare bedroom, hidden away behind the door. Books are scattered around the house in various bookshelves, and some seem to have migrated into my husband’s study: he has all my old William Boyds, for example, and old Grishams. 95% of my books are on the shelves in my study, and in piles on the floor. There is a system but at the moment it is a bit out of control. The fiction is A-Z without genre separation, shelves for poetry, short stories and drama, two shelves of Spanish language text books and novels [we live in Spain some of the year which I blog about at www.notesonaspanishvalley.com], and a shelf of journalism and creative writing text books dating back to when I taught journalism. My reference bookshelf includes the usual suspects plus research books for my novels, so lots on adoption and family history for the ‘Rose Haldane: Identity Detective’ series [I’m writing book two now, book one Ignoring Gravity is available at Amazon] plus World War Two which I am fascinated about and will write about ‘some day’.

the to-read shelves

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

Yes, I still have it and re-read it. When I was 10 I was given Pigeon Post by Arthur Ransome as a present and loved it. I bought Swallowdale, the second in the ‘Swallows and Amazons’ series, with my own money. Every birthday of Christmas present after that was another S&A book.

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?

Guilty pleasures? I am fond of crime [I like the intellectual puzzle, not the violence] and often pick up a familiar Susan Hill or Stieg Larsson. I recently blogged about reading a Simon Serrailler novel and called it a comfort read, which Susan Hill took me to task over – I meant comfort in the sense of ‘relaxing into the familiar’. Also I find children’s/YA series addictive: Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Twilight, Wolf Brother, Swallows and Amazons. But they are not hidden: they are either on my bookshelves or my Kindle. And they do get re-read.

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?

My father’s copy of Treasure Island. It’s a beautiful thing, not worth anything I don’t think, but I love its green and gold binding. It is more than a book: it is a memory of my father who encouraged me to look at books and newspapers even before I could read the words. It’s because of him that, as a farmer’s daughter from a remote seaside corner of Yorkshire, I made my own magazines full of stories and drawings, and seemed destined to read English at university. He always gave the impression that everything was possible.

The S's

What is the first ‘grown up’, and I don’t mean in a ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ way, that you remember on your parent’s shelves or at the library, you really wanted to read? Did you ever get around to it and are they on your shelves now?

My mother’s copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover was the one I wanted to read, knowing it was controversial but not understanding why. I did read it, much later, in fact I took it to university with me though the paper was thin and fragile by then. I am proud of Mum, who ordered the book from our village newsagent and brought it home in a brown paper bag. By some quirk, the warden of my college – Goldsmiths, London University – was Sir Richard Hoggart who was an expert witness at the obscenity trial of LCL in 1960 when Penguin published the full unexpurgated edition.

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?

It is rare that I borrow a book from a friend. I do borrow library books, particularly for research or to try out a new crime series. If I like it, I will buy it. I do not want to know how much I spend every year on books. Best not calculated.

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

This week I bought the new poetry volume by Clive James, Sentenced to Life. Very moving, very true, a difficult but beautiful read.

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

Early Warning by Jane Smiley and A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson.

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

I have no idea what someone else would think of my shelves, it is such a broad mixture. I don’t mind what a visitor might think of my reading taste: I buy and read the books I want to read, I don’t buy them because of labels or image. If I did I wouldn’t have The Hobbit next to William Trevor, or Orwell next to Spike Milligan, Murakami and Murdoch. I find book snobbery pointless.

comfy sofa

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A huge thanks to Sandra 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. In the meantime… what do you think of Sandra’s responses and/or any of the books and authors that she mentions?

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The Shadows in the Street – Susan Hill

I mentioned in passing the other day the fact I sadly still have yet to meet Susan Hill who, no pressure, is one of my favourite living writers. I am still waiting for the afternoon tea we once discussed (see comments here). Anyway, it was not seeing her that reminded me I hadn’t reviewed The Shadows in the Streets, the fifth in her Simon Serrailler series which I am devouring slowly as I don’t want them to run out. Susan Hill is one of those authors who seem to be able to turn her hand to any genre, and in her crime novels have become one of my favourites, even if we did have a few bumpy starts, and this was no exception to the rule.

Vintage Books, paperback, 2011, fiction, 384 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Lafferton is a city in which the levels of prostitution have been rising. This has not gone unnoticed by the people of the city especially as the girls seem to be grouping closer and closer to the centre of town, possibly due to a rise in younger girls who may have been trafficked in. One person has noticed this in particular and has decided to take advantage of the seeming abundance of women, buy killing them. Initially what seems to be a one off incident is followed by another and it seems Lafferton has a serial killer on its hands, yet it’s most esteemed (well in some circles) Detective, Simon Serrailler, is getting away from it all in the tranquillity of a Scottish island, his peace and quiet is soon to be shattered.

Prostitution and trafficking are two very tricky subjects to handle by any author. There is the danger of adding a moral compass to the subject or in some cases preach about it. Initially I was slightly worried that this may go down that route as Hill introduces a new Dean at Lafferton Cathedral along with his wife, who seems to have some very moralistic opinions of the work of these girls and their effect on the city’s image, I needn’t have feared though. We soon see through Cat Deerbon, the local GP and Simon’s sister, that this woman is not what Lafferton, its cathedral or people want as some kind of pompous vigilante.

In fact The Shadows in the Street really looks at the reasons behind why these women are prostituting through some of its characters. Yes, some of them are doing it for the next fix of a drug, which is often seen as one of the stereotypes, yet why have they got into a situation where they are dependent on drugs? Some of these women end up doing it in the hope for a better life be it through choice, or in some cases not. We see these women’s plight and how some of them manage to gain power and independence through it, whilst some end in a spiralling situation. In every case these are not just nameless one dimensional prostitutes, just as they are one just faceless victims of a murder, these women have their own stories and we empathise with their situation. I found this an incredibly powerful aspect of the novel.

Someone had left a newspaper on the bench. There was a photo of the girl in the green jacket. Missing Prostitute Chantelle Buckley, 17.
Abi looked away. Why did they have to do that? She wasn’t a prostitute first, she was a girl, just a girl, no need to label her. Would they do that to her? Abi Righton, 23, prostitute. She shook her head to clear the words out of it. That wasn’t her, she was Abi Righton, mother of two, Abi Righton any bloody thing, and the same with Chantelle, same with Hayles, same with Marie. Just people.

Of course this is a thriller and designed to be devoured and read addictively offering escapism and chills and thrills. Fret not, if you are worried this is all sounding too heavy, as Susan Hill also provides all these elements, as well as a thought provoking read at the same time. Firstly I should say that I had absolutely no idea who the killer was until just before the very end (just when Hill wanted me to I suspect) when it dawned on me and due to what was going on in the book, which of course I won’t spoil, I got that really sick worried feeling. I was that engrossed. Indeed I was engrossed throughout as Susan Hill seems to know how to make the chapters just the right length and have just the cliff hanger ending that you find yourself saying ‘oh just one more chapter then’ until the whole book is finished. Secondly she also has an incredible power to make a book ever so creepy, as those of you who have read her ghost stories will know, and uses this to great effect to rack up the tension in her thrillers.

He had not overtaken her, he was not someone making quickly for home, with no interest in her. He was there, keeping behind, and nobody else was in sight or earshot. To her left reared up the dark outline of the Hill; to her right, the railings of the park. Houses were on the far side of that – she could not even see any lights, people had gone to bed by now.
She prayed for someone to drive by, for the gnat whine of the scooter, a late-night van, even a police patrol, even just one person walking a dog last thing.
But there was no one, except whoever was now a couple of yards behind her and closing in. She could hear breathing, a soft pant, in and out, in and out. Quiet footsteps. Marie broke into a run. The footsteps behind her quickened too.

The other element I like in the Simon Serrailler series, apart from the lead obviously though he wasn’t in this one that much to be honest, is the way I have come to know his family. I have followed them as relationships have created stronger bonds or had them broken, I have followed births and deaths, love and grief. Not to spoil anything for anyone who might want to start at the beginning (which you will want to do if you are anything like me and need order in your life where you can get it) but in this series how one character deals with grief and how a new incoming member of the family tries to bring two members back together very touching. It adds another level to the series I think.

I really enjoyed The Shadow in the Streets and once again Susan Hill has proved that the Simon Serrailler (who of course is another Simon S so I am bound to like him) series is one which has both those brilliant elements of being gripping and being thought provoking. I am a huge fan of Susan Hill in whatever genre she writes, I do think that with her crime novels we get the best of her literary writing and character driven plots as well as the dark and gothic chilling tones of her ghost stories, a perfect combination.

I am now very keen to read The Betrayal of Trust and see what happens next in Lafferton, before that though I am being very brave and bringing Susan’s modern classic I’m The King of the Castle as my choice for the final episode of the first series of Hear Read This next month, eek – will my co-hosts like it? Will I? Back to Lafferton though, who else is a big fan of the Simon Serrailler series? Who has yet to try it and have I tempted you?

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Filed under Review, Susan Hill, Vintage Books

London Diary #3 – The Folio & House of Illustration Prize

This is going to sound ruder than its meant; sometimes emails arrive in the Savidge Reads inbox and the initial excitement is almost imminently met with gloom. I am talking about the moment a really wonderful and exciting email arrives inviting me to something bookish and fabulous and I can’t go. Normally this is because they are in London on a working day and if by some miracle I could get the day off, the train fare down is ludicrous unless several weeks/months in advance. So imagine my joy when an invite to the Book Illustration Competition Awards arrived and I was already going to be in London. This was made all the better that it was from the lovely folks at the Folio Society who make all those gorgeous editions of books for their forthcoming Ghost Stories collection, which I am going to have to get, along with The House of Illustration! How could I say no? Especially when I was allowed a plus one, and so took a friendly face you might recognise…

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Yes, that is Polly, my best friend of almost thirty years (I know, we look so young don’t we) and former blogger of Novel Insights, which she won’t bring back no matter how many times I beg. She was the perfect person to have a good old gossip with over a class or two of sparkly whilst we had a look at all the long listed submissions on display in the House of Illustration’s gallery (I did have pictures but they all came out blurred or reflecting the crowd/my fizzog) and at some of the past winners of the awards…

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Soon the lights went down and it was time to get ready to announce the shortlisted authors which was meant to be done by the one and only Susan Hill but who alas couldn’t make it. I was momentarily bereft, more champagne helped…

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Anyway the short listed illustrators were Carrie May, Emma Buckley, Charlie Dixon, Jamie Clarke and Imogen Clifton. You can see examples of their work here along with the winner. Then it was time for the winner to be announced…

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And the winner was David McConochie! Once again, as with the other event I went to in the last week, it is me taking pictures of silhouetted people…

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As you can see his works are brilliantly spooky, capturing the essence of the gothic and the ghostly, it is also very varied…

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This was my favourite one…

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Something very sensation novel and Victorian about it. In fact I would quite like a portrait in this style of myself, just putting that out there. A huge congratulations to all the illustrators, as I am sure Polly would concur their art work was all marvellous and must have made it a very, very difficult job for the judges. I can’t wait to see the finished product when it comes out and will be purchasing a copy. I actually had a look through their catalogue on the way home and could frankly have the whole lot in my house… maybe one day when I have that stately home with its own library wing?!? I also need to return to the House of Illustration and have another wander when I am next in London.

Do you have any Folio Society editions and if so which ones? Also, I would love to know which Ghost Stories you would include in an anthology… I thought I would have loads and I don’t, which is odd as in my head I love them. I seem to have more novels, like The Woman in Black by the aforementioned Susan Hill, who I will meet one day – I will, I will, I will!

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Spooky Stories…

As you will all know tomorrow is Halloween which is one of my favourite days of the year. I think it comes second to Boxing Day, seriously these are both above my birthday and Christmas in terms of times of cheer and joy for me. Anyway, it will be Halloween and I don’t know about you but I am in just the right mood for some spooky stories and tales of terror. Which ones to read though?

Well, funny you should ask that as I have made a little selection of potential books which I thought I would share with you in case you need inspiration, though I would love more recommendations from you below…

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Cold Hand in Mine
by Robert Aickman – Recently republished by Faber & Faber, this second collection of Aickman’s ‘ strange stories’ is supposed to be one of his creepiest, weirdest and most chilling. I am really looking forward to reading these, they also happen to be my latest choice for Hear Read This when we record in a couple of weeks so I hope they are in Gav’s suitcase while he travels around America.

Say Her Name by James Dawson – I have been meaning to read this for ages, James is now the ruling Queen of Teen and should really be the Queen of Scream as his wonderful novels are like better written Point Horrors for the current generation – and I love Point Horrors! I feel especially bad for not reading this sooner as I challenged James to write this one as I said modern ghost stories can’t be scary. This will definitely be my next creepy read.

The Mist in the Mirror by Susan Hill. I think Susan Hill is a legend at ghost stories, well I think she is a legend in all the forms she writes in. This is one of the few of her ghostly tales that I haven’t read and is guaranteed to give me the chills. Delightful. It has also reminded me that I have an anthology somewhere of ghostly tales chosen by Hill, that could be another addition. I am currently reading one of the Simon Serrailler series of crime novels by Susan and it is marvellous.

The Orphan Choir by Sophie Hannah. Sophie Hannah is most well known for her psychological thrillers (which I often find spookier than ghost stories as I mention on this episode of The Readers) and also for recently writing a new Poirot novel. Last year she wrote this spooky tale for the newly reinvigorated Hammer Horror imprint. It is another book I cannot believe I haven’t read yet, mind you like Susan Hill I am very behind with Sophie’s series. Shame on me.

The Mistletoe Bride and Other Stories by Kate Mosse. I have yet to read any of Kate Mosse’s novels. I tried reading Labyrinth when it came out in paperback and wasn’t in the right mood for it. I actually have this collection, subtitled ‘haunting tales’, and the equally creepy sounding The Taxidermists Daughter high up on my TBR. I sometimes like a short story collection as a way into a new author, and also ghost stories can be particularly spooky or chilling in the shorter form.

I know I have recommended it endless times but if you fancy a fast an chilling read do grab The Woman in Black by Susan Hill. Oh and I also must recommend Michelle Paver’s Dark Matter. I will also have a ghostly tale up for discussion on the blog tomorrow. So which books will you be curling up with on Halloween night? Have you read any of the books I have selected? Which books would you recommend?

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Filed under Book Thoughts, Random Savidgeness