Tag Archives: Susanna Jones

What Makes Us Tougher or More Forgiving Of The Books We Read?

I am currently reading ‘Fanny and Stella; The Young Men Who Shocked Victorian London’ by Neil McKenna and so far I am really enjoying it. As many of you will know I am fascinated by the Victorian period and will generally purchase or seek out any book that is set in that era either written at the time or the contemporary neo-Victorian novels. One of the things that I have noticed lately, though less with non-fiction like ‘Fanny and Stella’, is that I am much, much tougher on these books, particularly the latter and I have been meaning to chat on here about it for a while. Do you think we are tougher on the books that we assume we will love when we start them?

I noticed recently that with two really good books, ‘When Nights Were Cold’ by Susanna Jones and ‘Tom-All-Alones’ by Lynn Shepherd, which I had picked up in part because they were set in the Victorian era and so the Victoriana magpie in me had simply had to have them both. Yet I think, in hindsight, I was tougher on them than if I had read anything by either author set in another period. So therefore what drew me to the books was what made me all the more critical of them.

I think this is partly because of my personal knowledge of, and fascination with, the time (the amount I studied to be a tour guide at Highgate Cemetery, which involves tests and allsorts or did when I joined) and also because I read so many of them. It is natural that the more we read the tougher we are with what we do and don’t like isn’t it? Here I may as well say that I now compare more Victoriana novels to Jane Harris’ ‘Gillespie and I’ or something by Arthur Conan Doyle or Wilkie Collins. I am not sure it is such a fair comparison with the latter two as they are classics of the time and two of the great writers of the time. Yet that does stick in my mind a tiny bit.

This doesn’t just happen with books on my favourite subjects or set in my favourite eras though, it can happen with hyped books or the latest book by our favourite authors. I find it harder to be so impartial with those books too. I know that I am always harder on books that have received a lot of hype from the press, bloggers, friends etc. I am also much more forgiving if the latest novel by my favourite author is not as great as I was expecting, just because it is my favourite author. Fickle aren’t I? Though aren’t we all to varying degrees? It is something I have been pondering so I thought I would throw it out there to all of you.

Do you find that you are harder on books when you love the subject, genre or author or do you find it is the other extreme? What are those subjects, genres, authors or even types of literature? Do you think the more we read the pickier we naturally get? Do you have books that you set as milestones for other books to be compared to and if so what are those books and why?

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When Nights Were Cold – Susanna Jones

Thank you all very much for your snowy book recommendations on Friday, as the snow had stuck on the Wirral (which apparently rarely happens) over the weekend I decided I would curl up with a book that was suitably icy, though as it turned out not one of the books you recommended – no offence. I had been meaning to read ‘When Nights Were Cold’ by Susanna Jones ever since it was on the Fiction Uncovered List 2012. I am a big fan of Fiction Uncovered, an initiative to give some books that might have gone under the radar in a particular year more attention, and it has lead me to some gems such as Ray Robinson’s ‘Forgetting Zoe’ and of course Catherine Hall’s ‘The Proof of Love’. I have most of the listed books in the TBR and seeing as ‘When Nights Were Cold’, one of 2012’s choices, was a Victorian tale (and you know how I love those) with an icy and Arctic twist the timing seemed perfect for it to be read.

*** Mantle Books, hardback, 2012, fiction, 341 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Grace Farringdon seems a woman who is rather out of sync with her time, if only by half a decade or so, from a young age she has an obsession with the polar regions and follows the adventures of Ernest Shackleton and his expeditions into this unknown frontier. Being the late Victorian period, and though the suffragette movement is beginning, this is not seen as ‘the done thing’ for a young woman who should be only occupied by the idea of marrying well. Grace exasperates her father, and mother particularly, all the more when she applies, and secretly seeks funding from a distant aunt, to enrol in a woman’s college where she sets up the Antarctic Exploration Society with fellow students, and an unlikely set of friends, Leonora Locke (daughter of an infamous actress), Winifred Hooper (a meek woman set to become a doctor’s wife) and Cecily Parr (orphaned daughter of two mountaineers). These three women decide to defy conventions further by becoming mountaineers themselves, only what happens to them becomes more chilling than the Welsh and Alpine mountains they start to explore.

“I scratched a few unsatisfactory sentences on my sheet, tucked it into the envelope, placed it on my dressing table. The letters informed our families that we had died knowing all the risks we faced and that we loved them and were sorry for the pain we caused, but that we had done it for the greater good of womankind and it was better to have tried and failed than to have stayed home embroidering tablecloths. Locke addressed her letter to her parents and Geoffrey, and Parr’s was addressed to her aunt and uncle in Wales. She grumbled that this was unnecessary and would put a curse on the adventure. And it’s only the Breithorn, she said, but she wrote the letter nevertheless and placed it on her bedside table.”

There were lots of things that I enjoyed about ‘When Nights Were Cold’, the fact that the whole way through there was a hint of something awful having happened at some point and the mystery behind it, the strained relationships of Grace and her mother and father, the difficulty she had adjusting from being alone and independent to coming home, why her sister had disappeared for fifteen years, the sibling rivalry for a certain Mr Black (a very clever strand in the book that twisted and turned itself), the stories of Shackleton and Scott and their adventures we hear through Grace and, what seemed to me, the main heart of the novel which is the tale of four women who wanted to do something bold to break the mould which Victorian society had women bound in still.

There is though a ‘however’ coming along. As much as I loved all of these strands, and I really did, there was almost too much going on and this caused me issues for two reasons. The first was that the book worked its best when Grace was retelling the tales of the Antarctic explorers and indeed when she was out in the Welsh mountains training for the forthcoming Alps, and then the atmosphere and adventure (and it was gripping, scary and dramatic) when they were there. It was in these situations that Grace came alive and so the book did. When there was less going on, and in these testing times we get a real insight into Grace, when she is at home with all that going on, and the possible madness of her sister, Grace (who I occasionally wondered if had gone slightly insane) sort of retreats from the reader while the story takes hold. I only felt I got to know her a bit and that was when she was in the mountains.

That said that does link to the second slight issue I had. There is a mystery, in fact two actually, bubbling in the background of the book the whole way through. Interestingly you don’t see it until about a quarter of the way through the book and its one that really makes the final chapters of the book whizz by with you gripped. Again, like Grace’s character, this mystery seems to get swallowed up by the domestic side of the tale and a possible love story, which again could have been given more space to really grab the reader. I felt like I was being pulled along by lots of great factors and yet they were fighting for space with each other. What I really enjoyed about the book was also what was occasionally causing me to pause with the book.

What I am saying, probably rather badly and in much too lengthy a way, is that actually I think ‘When Nights Were Cold’ was a very good book, but had it been about 200 pages longer it could have been an absolutely amazing epic. Susanna Jones’ prose, characters and atmosphere of the sinister and dangerous Alps are all marvellous I just need it all to have longer to unfold especially with Grace and all her secrets. I think had Susanna Jones had longer to do all this, and more pages and time for the reader to be involved in everything that was going on, I could easily have loved this book as much as ‘Gillespie and I’ by Jane Harris. That said I enjoyed it a lot, I was just left wanting more – which is a good thing overall, I think.

Who else has read ‘When Nights Were Cold’ and what did you make of it, it is one of those books I wish I could discuss over coffee at a book group, especially with its ending. Have any of you read any of Susanna Jones other novels, for this is her fourth, and what did you make of them? Have you read any of the other 2012 Fiction Uncovered titles, or indeed the 2011?

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Filed under Fiction Uncovered, Mantle Publishing, Review, Susanna Jones

Shoulda, Woulda, Coulda Reads of 2012

Do you find that you get to the end of the year, start to see everyone’s books of the year, start compiling your own and then suddenly think ‘why didn’t I read that? Or that? Or that?’ I know taht i do. Actually, I do a list like this mentally every year, I thought I had posted one on the blog last year but I can’t find it currently, never mind. I decided that I would compile one for you this weekend, before I post my books of the year at the end of next week, and who knows they may be some of the first reads of 2013!

  

  • Bringing Up The Bodies – Hilary Mantel (started this one, then put it down as got a deluge of Green Carnation Prize submissions to read)
  • The Yips – Nicola Barker (see excuse above)
  • The Casual Vacancy – J. K. Rowling (was really excited by this, then heard too much about it, then Gran said it wasn’t very good. She has now said it got a lot better in the end, so I will give it a whirl after Dickens I think, if the whim tales me)

  

  • This is Life – Dan Rhodes (very cross with myself about this one as Dan Rhodes is one of my favourite authors and so I should have read this straight away, it is also one of the Fiction Uncovered titles and I love that promotion)
  • HHhH – Laurent Binet (I wasn’t too fussed about this debut until I saw Marieke Hardy singing its praises on the First Tuesday Book Club, have wanted to read it since)
  • Gossip From The Forest – Sara Maitland (a book about fairy tales and forests and the relationship between the two, very me, very cross)

 

  • John Saturnall’s Feast – Lawrence Norfolk (a book set to appeal to foodies like ‘Perfume’ appealed to anyone who likes scents, and a dark book too, started this twice and each time more Green Carnation submissions arrived, too big a book to read in bits and bobs)
  • Building Stories – Chris Ware (a graphic novel in a box that pushes the boundaries of fiction be it graphic or not, erm yes please)
  • When Nights Were Cold – Susanna Jones (another of the Fiction Uncovered titles which appealed to me because I have a rather random obsession with the Arctic and Antarctic and this is set in the Victorian period – I imagined this would have been one of my reads of the year)

  

  • Every Contact Leaves A Trace – Elanor Dymott (this sounded like an unusual literary thriller/murder mystery and I should have read more of those this year)
  • A Death in the Family – Karl Ove Knausgaard (admittedly I had no idea this book existed until I started seeing other bloggers ends of the year lists, the bloggers who loved it really loved it and they are all blogs I trust, this may be my first read of 2013 – I like to start with a gooden)
  • Any of the Simon Serrailler series – Susan Hill (I intended to read two this year to start catching up again, I haven’t read one, bad, bad me)

So which have been your shoulda, woulda, coulda reads of the year? What titles, new or old, can you not believe or feel gutted you haven’t read yet?

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Fiction Uncovered 2012

I have been waiting for this list of books to be announced for weeks, finally it is here, the Fiction Uncovered list of titles for 2012. If you are currently thinking ‘well what on earth is that’ let me explain, this is not a longlist of books of which one will eventually win a prize, it is list of eight titles that may just have gone under the radar and have been deemed, by a team of judges, as being books we all should have read because they are excellent yet didn’t get the buzz that they deserved. These selected titles are then promoted in book shops (including the lovely Book Barge) around the UK and in libraries, lovely. Well now it is back for 2012. I even voted for a book I wanted to see on the list if I were a judge, I must go to that list again to get even more recommendations. Anyway…

So why am I so excited? Well in part it’s the fact that it is another list of books that I might want to read (I have to admit I think I actually want to real ALL the books on this years list) and because its pushing books which might not have been pushed. The other reason is more personal as last year this is where I first heard about, and then tried, ‘The Proof of Love’ by Catherine Hall and we all know how that read went don’t we? I was also introduced to Ray Robinson’s fantastic novel ‘Forgetting Zoe’. I have both their previous novel/s to read in the future. I also started both Tim Pears ‘Disputed Land’, which I loved but was a little too close to home at a specific time so I had to stop, and Sarah Moss’ ‘Night Waking’ which I was loving but had to crack on with reading the Green Carnation Prize submissions, which is what could stop me from reading this years eight which, with my brief thoughts below each ones blurb, are…

Two Cows and a Vanful of Smoke by Peter Benson (Alma Books)

When young Elliot gets a labourer’s job at Mr Evans’s after being sacked from a pig farm for liberating six of its sows, he thinks he’ll have even more opportunities to lean on gates or stare at fields. But his best mate Spike keeps getting him into trouble, first by showing him what is being grown in a tucked-away polytunnel, and then turning up at his caravan’s door with a van full of weed. As Elliot tries to help his friend get rid of the hot merchandise, they find themselves at the receiving end of a cruel cat-and-mouse game.

Simon says: The fact this has polytunnel (my mother has just got some she is obsessed about) in the blurb makes me think of The Archers and we all know how much I love that show. It also sounds like an English countryside book, which I also love. I must read it.

My Former Heart by Cressida Connolly (Fourth Estate)

When she grew up, Ruth would say that she could place the day that her mother had decided to go away. She didn’t know the actual date, but she recalled the occasion: it was on the afternoon of a wet day, early in 1942, during a visit to the cinema. She thought she could even pinpoint the exact moment at which Iris had made up her mind to go, leaving her only child behind. Neither of them could have guessed then that they would never live together again. Spanning the second half of the last century, “My Former Heart”, Cressida Connolly’s mesmerising first novel, charts the lives of three generations of Iris’s family, the mother who walked away from her child. Ruth will be deserted again, many years later, by a husband she loves, but not before she has had two children by him. She leaves London to live with her uncle, where she creates a new life for herself with another woman. And we follow the lives of her two children, trying to make a place for themselves in the world in the shadow of the family that precedes them. With its large cast of fascinating characters, this is an outstanding novel about families and their ability to adapt. It surely marks the beginning of long career as a novelist for Cressida Connolly.

Simon says: The LGBT twist in the blurb interests me and would make it stand out in its type of fiction if you know what I mean. I was slightly worried when I saw this was compared to Alan Hollinghursts latest novel, only this is only 240 pages. I am intrigued.

Lucky Bunny by Jill Dawson (Sceptre)

Crime is a man’s business, so they say, though not according to Queenie Dove. A self-proclaimed genius when it comes to thieving and escape, she reckons she’s done pretty well. Yes, she had a tough childhood in London’s East End during the Depression, with a father in and out of prison. But she survived the Blitz, learned how to get by on her wits, and soon graduated from shoplifting to more glamorous crimes. Daring, clever and sexy, she thrived in the Soho of the Krays and the clubs of Mayfair, fell wildly in love, and got away with it all. Or did she? For beneath Queenie’s vivacious, unrepentant account lies another story – of punishment and loss, and a passionate relationship that turns sour. To the end, she believes she was lucky, but did she simply play the hand that fate dealt her? Vividly portraying the times and circles she moved in, Lucky Bunny captures an intriguing, engaging woman as it questions how far we are in control of our own lives.

Simon says: This has been on my radar for ages, so reading it is a no brainer, in fact it will be a done deal.

Crushed Mexican Spiders by Tibor Fischer (Unbound)

‘Crushed Mexican Spiders’ is classic Fischer. Don’t be fooled by the title: the poet laureate of London grime is on home ground as a women returns home to discover the key to her Brixton flat no longer works – Haunting images and crisp one-liners are about all that link it with the second tale, ‘Possibly Forty Ships’, the true story of the Trojan War. In a scene straight out of a Tarantino movie, an old man is being tortured, pressed to reveal how the greatest legend of all really happened. Let’s just say it bears scant resemblance to Homer: ‘If you see war as a few ships sinking in the middle of the waves, a few dozen warriors in armour, frankly not as gleaming as it could be, being welcomed whole-heartedly by the water, far, far away from Troy, if you see that as war, then it was a war – ‘ The stories are being illustrated by the work of the acclaimed Czech photographer Hana Vojakova .

Simon says: At a mere 64 pages and with illustrations I want to read this just to see how it is so powerful in so few words, I also like the Unbound project so if I read it I will kill two bords of intrigue with one stone.

Hit and Run by Doug Johnstone (Faber and Faber)

Driving home from a party with his girlfriend and brother, all of them drunk and high on stolen pills, Billy Blackmore accidentally hits someone in the night. In a panic, they all decide to drive off. But the next day Billy wakes to find he has to cover the story for the local paper. It turns out the dead man was Edinburgh’s biggest crime lord and, as Billy struggles with what he’s done, he is sucked into a nightmare of guilt, retribution and violence. From the author of the acclaimed “Smokeheads”, “Hit & Run” is another pitch-black psychological thriller.

Simon says: I heard about this thanks to a review of Kim’s on Reading Matters and was intrigued. I like the fact a thriller has made the list too, I like a good thriller, only concern is it might be a bit ‘blokey’ for me though that could be a good test.

When Nights Were Cold by Susanna Jones (Mantle)

In turn of the century London, Grace Farringdon dreams of polar explorations and of escape from her stifling home with her protective parents and eccentric, agoraphobic sister. But while Grace longs to cross glaciers and survive sub-zero conditions with her hero Ernest Shackleton, she seems destined for nothing more than marriage, or a life shackled to the family home. But when Grace secretly applies to Candlin, a women’s college filled with intelligent, like-minded women, she finally feels her ambitions beginning to be take shape. There she forms an Antarctic Exploration Society with the gregarious suffragette Locke, the reserved and studious Hooper and the strange, enigmatic Parr, and before long the group are defying their times and their families by climbing the peaks of Snowdonia and planning an ambitious trip to the perilous Alps. Fifteen years later, trapped in her Dulwich home, Grace is haunted by the terrible events that took place out on the mountains. She is the society’s only survivor and for years people have demanded the truth of what happened, the group’s horrible legacy a millstone around her neck. Now, as the eve of the Second World War approaches, Grace is finally ready to remember and to confess…

Simon says: The phrases ‘turn of the century’, ‘agoraphobic sister’ and ‘polar explorations’ have me officially sold. I am going to beg, steal or borrow a copy of this.

The Light of Amsterdam by David Park (Bloomsbury)

It is December in Belfast, Christmas is approaching and three sets of people are about to make their way to Amsterdam. Alan, a university art teacher stands watching the grey sky blacken waiting for George Best’s funeral cortege to pass. He will go to Amsterdam to see Bob Dylan in concert but also in the aftermath of his divorce, in the hope that the city which once welcomed him as a young man and seemed to promise a better future, will reignite those sustaining memories. He doesn’t yet know that his troubled teenage son Jack will accompany his pilgrimage. Karen is a single mother struggling to make ends meet by working in a care home and cleaning city centre offices. She is determined to give her daughter the best wedding that she can. But as she boards the plane with her daughter’s hen party she will soon be shocked into questioning where her life of sacrifices has brought her. Meanwhile middle-aged couple, Marion and Richard are taking a break from running their garden centre to celebrate Marion’s birthday. In Amsterdam, Marion’s anxieties and insecurities about age, desire and motherhood come to the surface and lead her to make a decision that threatens to change the course of her marriage. As these people brush against each other in the squares, museums and parks of Amsterdam, their lives are transfigured as they encounter the complexities of love in a city that challenges what has gone before. Tender and humane, and elevating the ordinary to something timeless and important, The Light of Amsterdam is a novel of compassion and rare dignity.

Simon says: I was a little nonchalant about this one with Alan’s ‘situation’ but I then read about the other two and now rather fancy reading this.

This is Life by Dan Rhodes (Canongate)

This is Life is a missing baby mystery and an enchanted Parisian adventure. Hand in hand with lovable heroine Aurelie Renard, you will see life as you’ve never seen it before, discover the key to great art, witness the true cost of love, and learn how all these things may be controlled by the in-breath of a cormorant. Chock-full of charming characters and hilarious set-pieces this is a hugely enjoyable novel that will make you see life anew.

Simon says: The only book on the list by an author I have read before (and love, seriously he is brilliant) and I am thrilled that Dan is on the list, so as its one of the few of his I haven’t read already I will DEFINITELY be reading this one and probably within the next week or two. If you haven’t read him you must, ‘Gold’ has been my favourite (funny and heartbreaking) so far, I have high hopes for this.

So that is the list. What do you make of it and indeed the venture of Fiction Uncovered itself (the website is here)? Have you read any of these or anything else by the authors? I would love some further insight.

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