Tag Archives: Tom Sharpe

Books of 2013; Part I

With two days of 2013 to go, I thought it was time to share my books of the year. In the tradition I have set over the last few years, and my inability to whittle books down as favourites, there will be two posts of my books of the year. Today it is the books that were published before 2013 and tomorrow the ones that were published for the first time in the UK this year. Interestingly today’s list has proved so much easier than tomorrows as it seems I didn’t really read many books published before 2013 – and when I did only a few of them blew me away, those ones were…

10. Chocolat – Joanne Harris

I have to say that even though I had seen the film, though it has been a while, ‘Chocolat’ as a book was a whole lot darker and less twee than I thought it would be before picking it up. One of the many things that I admired so much about it was that under the tale of outsiders coming to a place, and quietly causing mayhem, there was the huge theme of people’s individuality and that being different should be celebrated and not ostracised, yet ‘Chocolat’ is also cleverly not a book that smacks you over the head with a moralistic tone.

9. The Detour – Gerbrand Bakker

‘The Detour’ won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize earlier this year and having read it you can easily see why. Bakker creates a story that is subtle and slow burning yet all at once brimming with a sense of mystery and menace. It is also a book that will linger on with the reader long after you have read it and, if you are like me, long after it devastates you with both its prose and most importantly its story. A much recommended book.

8. The Ministry of Fear – Graham Greene

Greene shows what a master he is not only of atmosphere (war torn and spy strewn London) but of writing a book which takes you on a rollercoaster of emotions as much as it does thrills. Some of the book I found profoundly moving, both the descriptions of the destruction the war inflicted and also in an element I can’t explain here for fear of spoilers. Greene also made me laugh out loud on several occasions which, with all the tension and twists, proved much needed and added a great contrast of light amongst the dark.

7. Riotous Assembly – Tom Sharpe

The more I have thought about Riotous Assembly, the more impressed I have been left by it. The humour gets you through some of the tough bits, some of the bits that people would normally find hard to read and digest palatable by their humour yet equally devastating, if not more so, when the reader realizes the truth in it. So yet there maybe the boobies (and more) and bullets (and more) in it that I was expecting, but the way in which they are used is both titillating and thought provoking.

6. The Long Falling – Keith Ridgway

If I had a little bit of a literary crush on Ridgway’s writing after reading ‘Hawthorn and Child’ last year, I now have something of a full on crush on it from reading ‘The Long Falling’. It shocked me from the first chapter which slowly meanders before a sudden twist, which happens a lot in this book actually, yet unlike some books that first amazing chapter is bettered as the book goes on and for all these reasons I strongly urge you to give it a read. I loved it, if love is the right word? I was also thrilled that this was as brilliant as the previous Ridgway I read yet a completely different book in a completely different style.

5. Good Evening Mrs Craven; The Wartime Stories – Mollie Panter Downes

I think Mollie Panter-Downes writing is astounding. I really remember liking it last time but this time I loved it. There are the wonderful, often rather quirky, characters some of whom, like Mrs Ramsey, Mrs Peters and Mrs Twistle, keep returning in and out of the stories which helps build the consistency of the world Panter-Downes describes as they run from 1939 to 1944, the tone changing slightly as the book goes on. She can bring a character to life in just a mere sentence or two and the brevity of her tales and how much they make your mind create is quite astounding.

4. The Grass is Singing – Doris Lessing

Lessing’s writing is unflinchingly brilliant. As I mentioned about the sense of menace and oppression is wonderfully evoked as the landscape and weather match the atmosphere of impending doom the book has and also Mary’s mental state. Mary is also an incredible creation, one of the most complex characters I have read. She is never completely likeable nor dislikeable, yet you find yourself fascinated by a woman who in turns goes from victim to venomous, from independent to weak, from sane to crazy, from racist to not and back again. It is confronting and equally compelling and highlights the society at the time and the conundrum and conflict a country and its society found itself in and in some ways, shockingly, still does.

3.Mariana – Monica Dickens

If someone had told me this is what the book was going to be about before I started I might have been inclined to think that this book really wouldn’t be for me. Yet I loved every single page of it and was completely lost in Mary’s life. Part of that was to do with the character of Mary that Monica creates, she isn’t the picture perfect heroine at all, she can be moody, ungainly and awkward, a little self centred on occasion but she is always likeable, her faults making her more endearing even when she can be rather infuriating. Part of it was also all the characters around her, I want to list them all but there are so many it would be madness, some of them delightful, some spiteful but all of them drawn vividly and Monica Dickens has a wonderful way of introducing a new character with the simplest of paragraphs which instantly sums them up. All of these characters are part of the many things that make you go on reading ‘Mariana’, every page or two someone new lies in store.

2. HHhH – Laurent Binet

I don’t think I have learnt so much about World War II from a book I have read in all my 31, nearly 32, years. Considering that I studied it for about five years in my history lessons at school this is quite something. I had no idea about some of the smaller but utterly fascinating facts behind this time period; that the Hitler wanted authors such as Aldous Huxley, Rebecca West, HG Wells and Virginia Woolf; that the Nazi’s built their own brothel (Kitty’s Salon) to film other Nazi’s to see if they were true to the regime or not. Nor did I know of some of the utterly horrific things, like what an ineffectual plonker Chamberlain was, the plans for Nazi attack cells in all the cities all over the UK and the horrendous atrocities such as Grandmothers Gully in Kiev.

1. The House of Mirth – Edith Wharton

… there is very little doubt in my mind that ‘The House of Mirth’ is an absolute masterpiece and could easily be one of my favourite books. I loved Wharton’s prose, her humour and the fact she did completely the opposite of what I was expecting with Lily’s story which alas I can’t discuss in detail for I would completely spoil it for you if you have yet to read it – if that is the case you must go and get it now. Lily Bart walked fully off the page for me and I found myself thinking about her a lot when I wasn’t reading the book. Reading it is an experience, and I don’t say that often. One thing is for sure, I will not be forgetting the tale of Lily Bart for quite some time and I believe I will be returning to it again and again in the years to come.

So that is the first of my selection of books of 2013. I have only taken a small quote from my thoughts on each book, to find out more click on the link to each book. Which of these have you read and what did you think? I have realised I need to get into more of the books from the past and less of the shiny new ones, but that is for discussion more in the New Year. Any other books by these authors that you would recommend I read in 2014?

12 Comments

Filed under Books of 2013, Random Savidgeness

Riotous Assembly – Tom Sharpe

My very first memories of encountering Tom Sharpe’s books were the copies that aligned the bookshelves in my grandparent’s bedroom when I was a youngster. They were firm favourites with Granny Savidge and Bongy and yet to me they were objects of wide eyed bewilderment bordering on terror. You see when the 7/8/9 year old me saw these books all I could see was that they tended to be covered in boobs and guns, both of which worried me. As you can imagine when they bought me a lovely second hand hardback copy of a Wilt omnibus when I was 15 I was again more worried than grateful and hid it, who knows where it is now. So when Chris chose it for Novembers book group (which was a few weeks ago) I was intrigued and also, with those feelings from way back when, worried about it. Did I really want to spend my time reading a smutty book about boobies and bullets?

Arrow Books, 1971 (2002 edition – though not cover shown, but one like grandparents had), paperback, fiction, 320 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Riotous Assembly was Tom Sharpe’s very first published book back in 1971 and tells of a fictitious town, Piemburg, in South Africa and its police force during the apartheid. However this is not the sort of apartheid based story you might be suspecting as Tom Sharpe uses his wit, and some of the ‘naughty shenanigans’ I was expecting, to lampoon what was going on in South Africa at the time, especially those who enforced it.

Kommandant van Heerden, Piemburg’s Chief of Police, is called out to the house of Miss Hazelstone when she phones to tell him that she has killed her Zulu cook. This initially isn’t a worry for the Kommandant as white people (especially the English who he wishes he was and subsequently fawns over) are allowed to kill their black cooks as long as they do it indoors. However Miss Hazelstone killed him in the garden and will not move him, or what is left of him, nor will she have another member of her staff do it. Once at the house himself to try and smooth things over he discovers the unthinkable, Miss Hazelstone has been having relations with her cook since she was widowed and this was a crime passionel! As the Kommandent sees it, this could bring down the whole of society and cause disgrace for the city and so it must be covered up, at any cost.

At this moment he visualized the scene in court which would follow the disclosure that Miss Hazelstone had made it a habit to inject her black cook’s penis with a hypodermic syringe filled with novocaine before allowing him to have sexual intercourse with her. He visualized it and vowed it would never happen, even if it meant he had to kill her to prevent it.

With the help (though that a very ironic word considering what follows) of his number two (more appropriate a term for him by far) Konstabel Els the Kommandant calls a state of emergency over Miss Hazelstone’s property Jacaranda Park while he covers things up. Only in actual fact as the novel goes on we see the police bungle matters completely and make everything much, much worse.

As the book goes on it gets more and more farcical. Els is a psychopath in policeman’s clothing, there are drunken hidden priests, rubber fetishes and rumours of rabies become rife to keep people away. Much to laugh a long with all in all – quite possibly very loudly on public transport! What Tom Sharpe does masterfully here is that as you read on and belly laugh at events as they unfold you suddenly become aware that there is a lot of truth hidden in what you are laughing at. For example, you might be laughing at the outrageous notion that its fine to kill your cook in the house but not out of it, until you realise its true. You might be laughing as Konstabel Els finds even more ridiculous ways to torture someone, then you check yourself as you know that this did happen, and was happening when the book was published. It makes you think.

 ‘Madness is so monotonous,’ she told the doctor. ‘You would think that fantasies would be more interesting, but really one has to conclude that insanity is a poor substitute for reality.’
Then again, when she looked around her, there didn’t seem to be any significant difference between life in the mental hospital and life in South Africa as a whole. Black madmen did all the work, while white lunatics lounged about imagining they were God.

Yet also, strangely – in a good way, once you are aware of the serious nature deep set in the book Sharpe doesn’t make you feel bad for laughing. He has proved a very valuable point and highlighted some shocking truths but he keeps the laughter coming as he makes more and more preposterous things happen. It is a very, very clever way of writing something that really hits home, after all none of the events that go on to happen would have if Kommandant van Heerden has just arrested Miss Hazelstone as she wanted, but of course the true nature of her crime was unthinkable.

The more I have thought about Riotous Assembly, the more impressed I have been left by it. The humour gets you through some of the tough bits, some of the bits that people would normally find hard to read and digest (which nicely links in with what I discussed yesterday in terms of comforting vs. confronting reading) palatable by their humour yet equally devastating, if not more so, when the reader realizes the truth in it. So yet there maybe the boobies (and more) and bullets (and more) in it that I was expecting, but the way in which they are used is both titillating and thought provoking. If you have pondered reading Tom Sharpe, or maybe if you hadn’t or had written him off a little as I had, you need to start reading his work as soon as you can.

A big huge thanks to Chris for choosing this for book group, and also for making the discussion all the more interesting by sharing his childhood in Zimbabwe and being so open to talking about that and how important the book was to him. I am now desperate to get my mitts on Indecent Exposure, as it were!

10 Comments

Filed under Arrow Books, Books of 2013, Review, Tom Sharpe

Incoming (And Possibly Outgoing)…

It seems that I have rather belatedly cottoned onto the idea of a proper spring clean, just the two months late eh? It has all come about when after coming back from London I was rather strictly told that I better bloody had really ought to think about the amount of books that are in the house. Despite all those bookshelves that Gran bought me last Christmas, along with several storage boxes I don’t technically count, the space was running out. The tops of the shelves themselves, radiator covers and chests of drawers – pretty much anything that could house books has been. The words ‘sizing down’ reared their ugly heads, I hope they were aimed at my books anyway.

Book SortingStrangely a day after this I was very sick with flu, it must have been the shock. Though whilst being sickly I came up with an amazing idea, how about swapping some of the shelves around? This would then mean I would almost double my shelf space logistically (I won’t bore you with how) I forgot that it would also then mean a proper full on spring/autumn clean. If it was to save the books though, what did it matter? Only weirdly in moving shelves I started to move books and notice some that I wondered why I had/didn’t fancy reading anymore/was sent unsolicited and thought I might try at some point but haven’t a few years on. I thought really it was a bit selfish to keep them when the library/friends/neighbours may want them so I started sorting… and it got quite addictive. As you can see I am still in the process.

This of course means there will be space for some more books. I am no fool. This is good as I have had some treats in during the last week and I thought I might share them with you.

Incoming BooksFirst up some random treats have arrived in the last week. The only ones here I was expecting was Tom Sharpe’s ‘Riotous Assembly’ which is the book group read for next weekend and which I should really get a wriggle on and read frankly. Gran always used to tell me that I should read them as she thought the Wilt books were absolutely hilarious. I just remember them for having boobs on some of the covers. At last I am getting round to him, though really a little too late sorry Gran! The other two were the Natasha Solomons, I am a fan, and also the Suzanne Berne. I am wondering if I should read Suzanne’s Orange/Women’s Prize winning book ‘A Crime in the Neighbourhood’ first though. What do you think?

AutumnalNext up were some suitably autumnal books. I seem to have ignored the fact that autumn is here when normally I am celebrating this on the blog as it means I can dust of some Victorian novels, get stuck into some darker crime novels, ghostly tales and revel in the dark nights. Well I think all four of these will be just the ticket. Gavin of GavReads has raved about Sarah Pinborough for quite a while and so I thought with theses retellings of fairytales ‘Poison’ (Snow White) and ‘Beauty’ (Beauty and the Beast) I am in for a treat or two. I need to get ‘Charm’ (Cinderella) to make the set complete. ‘Marina’ was Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s debut novel before ‘Shadow of the Wind’ (which I think I need to re-read – though maybe not with all the books I have yet to read, hmmm) and is the tale of a mysterious disappearance in Barcelona. I am not sure ‘Doctor Sleep’ really needs an introduction. Though it links to the next few books as I have been thinking of spooky reads for Halloween…

Halloween HorrorI have a small ritual of reading a ghost story on Halloween. I have been puzzling what to read this year and am now spoilt for choice with these four books. I managed to snag these copies of ‘The Rats’ and ‘Psycho’ in a random charity shop I fell into the other day. I have been meaning to read ‘The Rats’ since James Herbert sadly passed away earlier this year. I have only recently wanted to read ‘Psycho’ though having watched the movie ‘Hitchcock’ which suddenly made me want to read it instantly. I have also been greeted by treats only this very morning from the very person who said I should clear the bookshelves a bit. That naughty fellow called The Beard. Apparently when shopping today ‘The Ghost Hunters’ by Neil Spring and Adam Nevill’s ‘The House of Small Shadows’ sounded like they were very much my sort of books. I think that this may be the case; I am now spoilt for spooky stories over Halloween.

So what have you borrowed/bought/been given books wise lately? What books are high on your periphery? Any Halloween reads planned?

19 Comments

Filed under Book Thoughts, Random Savidgeness