Tag Archives: Waterstones 11

Idiopathy – Sam Byers

It was author Nikesh Shukla who I heard raving about Sam Byers ‘Idiopathy’ so much that when I saw it in the lovely new sparkly Liverpool Central Library I simply had to pick it up. I admit it had been on my radar with its Waterstones 11 inclusion but it was Nikesh who sealed the deal. He didn’t really talk about the plot, just said that the writing was pretty much genius stuff. So when I read the cover description, as I don’t read blurbs on the whole, as ‘A novel about love, narcissism and ailing cattle’ it sounded both intriguing and rather quirky.

4th Estate, hardback, 2013, 300 pages, borrowed from the library

‘Idiopathy’ is, as defined at the start of the book, “a disease or condition which arises spontaneously or for which the cause is unknown”. Bearing this in mind, initially a reader may assume this applies simply to the strand of the book where cows are randomly becoming very ill and being culled, some thinking this means the end is nigh others just that the price of beef is about to soar. However I wondered (if I am trying to be deep and clever) whether in fact it is a condition that each of the three main characters, Katherine, Daniel and Nathan, have. Each has a feeling of unhappiness, loneliness or just in some way, possibly rather self indulgently, being a bit out of the loop with the world.

Katherine and Daniel used to be a couple not so long ago. A couple in one of the most possibly toxic relationships ever; she liked to annihilate him, twisting every sentence he gave her and playing mind games galore, while his insecurities made him snappy, unhappy and always in the wrong with every barbed sentence she threw him. They only really had one friend in common at the time, Nathan, a man who they decided to befriend as they thought he might know where to get some drugs and a crazy night out – they weren’t wrong. Yet Nathan disappeared one night, a night they both seemingly forgot along with Nathan himself, yet Nathan hasn’t and so when he comes back from a psychiatric ward a reunion looks imminent, if slightly doomed.

What Byers does with is characters, which I found both clever and fascinating as a reader, is make his three main protagonists all hideously dislikeable yet also incredibly readable. Prime example, and probably my favourite, was Katherine. I don’t think I have met anyone so barbed, cynical and downright miserable in fiction for some time, yet I have met so many Katherine’s in my life. If I am really honest I may even have (in some very dark times) had a bit of a Katherine phase in my time, without the half-arsed suicide attempt though thankfully. She sleeps around with the men she doesn’t paralyse with fear in the office because she has no self worth, then feels worthless but quite likes it and so spends nights eating in her dressing gown in front of the telly. She hates her job, in fact really her life, in Norwich, a place she doesn’t even want to be in yet fled to. She is the perfect anti-heroine.

“She met with Keith only on selected evenings. They fucked and drank and rarely spoke, which suited Katherine. He bought her a vibrator as a present; gift wrapped. With a heart-shaped tag that read ‘Think of me’. She donated it, tag and all, to her local charity shop on her way to work, buried at the bottom of a carrier bag filled with musty paperbacks and a selection of Daniel’s shirts she’d found amidst her archived clothes. She never saw it for sale, and wondered often what had become of it. She liked to think one of the elderly volunteers had taken it home and subjected herself to an experience so revelatory as to border on the mystical.”

Because she was such a big and brash and brilliantly vile character, she sort of stole the show. I liked Nathan, and actually wanted more of his back story and why he self harmed so much, and enjoyed watching him move back in with his parents, his mother now being a twitter and blog superstar turned author ‘Mother Courage’ a fame reached at the expense of her own son and his issues. Daniel I struggled with. I just found him a bit pathetic, a man who stuck with an utter bitch, Katherine, for five years and has now ended up with Angelica who is really a bit of nothingness he quite fancied when things were bad and whose friends and cat he hates. As someone who hates ineffectual people I found my teeth grating when ever Daniel’s narration took over even when it was very funny, though I think that is what Byers wanted.

‘Love you darling. Could you pass the milk?’
‘Course I can baby. Here you go. Love you.’
‘Love you too.’
They had, Daniel thought, crossed all acceptable boundaries of decency.

The book is hilarious by the way. You wouldn’t think it could be with such a bunch of miserable self serving so and so’s at the helm (even though you will love Katherine, honestly she is genius) yet I found myself laughing out loud a lot along the way. Interestingly as I read on I found I needed breaks from it, the humour made me want to gulp the book down yet the characters and their conversations become cloying after a time. A gamble by Byers as it is very realistic yet because they are so vile it can get quite heady, particularly the rows between Katherine and Daniel, or rather her turning every utterance back at him in which I soon found I had to stop reading as I was getting so cross at Katherine for being such a bitch and Daniel for being such a bloody doormat. Shows how real they were though. This could alienate some though because it almost gets too much on occasions.

Without sounding like a bit of a swanky twat (hopefully) I would describe this book as being ‘a very modern novel’ which simply typing makes me want to vomit in my own mouth somewhat. Yet it is true. There does seem to be something of a ‘turning thirty crisis’ nowadays; at thirty you should be like previous generations, have a house, marriage, kids and a pension yet it just isn’t like that and I don’t think that is something that is written about often. These people are also the ‘me’ generation who think everyone gives a toss what they think on twitter, their blogs, etc. (Oh dear, that me isn’t it? See I made it all about me, I must be one of them too – help!) Byers also has a pop at environmentalists, corporations… in fact everyone gets a swipe, and then the bovine issue after ‘swine flu’ and the recent horse meat scandal is another gem – though it was a tangent that trailed I thought until the almost too farcical ending.

I think the best way to describe ‘Idiopathy’ is that it is a timely novel, it is also occasionally a rather testing novel yet a novel that overall, for me, announces an author that I am really looking forward to watching in the future and seeing what he comes up with next. If it is a book about cantankerous pensioners living in a seaside town where people go to basically die then I think it could win every prize going, if not maybe I should right that book myself. Oh there I go again, making it all about me. Oops. Back to Sam and ‘Idiopathy’ then, I would strongly recommend giving them both a whirl; it could cause some corking debates at a book club.

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Filed under Fourth Estate Books, Review, Sam Byers

Ghana Must Go – Taiye Selasi

There has been a lot of buzz; I don’t want to say hype as that is always an off putting word, building around debut novelist Taiye Selasi in the last few months. She became one of the Waterstones 11 authors this year, there were murmured Man Booker predictions around blogs and forums and then this week she was announced as one of Granta’s Best of British Young Novelists. We also learn that her first published short story was written due to a deadline given to her by none other than Toni Morrison. Therefore, before you have even turned the first page, you might have been put off reading ‘Ghana Must Go’ because of the buzz or be expecting something that will completely blow you away. Well, I am about to add to the buzz because I was completely bowled away, and my expectations were high.

***** Viking Books, hardback, 2013, fiction, 318 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

They say that death is the end, in the case of ‘Ghana Must Go’ it is the beginning as in the very first paragraph we find Kweku Sai dying in his garden, he proceeds to die for the next chapter and indeed then for the first ninety-three pages, which is also the first section, of the book. This is a very clever writing device of Selasi’s because, again as we are told is the case, parts of Kweku’s life start to flash before his eyes and what we learn of is a man who tried hard to create a life for his family away from Ghana, in America, and who failed and fled abandoning them all when he did so.

That in itself could be enough story to fill a large novel, Selasi some manages to tell his story but also the ripples and repercussions that have come from that event several decades later and how his family must reunite and face the past and the memories it brings upon learning of their estranged father’s death.

 “Kweku dies barefoot on a Sunday before sunrise, his slippers by the doorway to the bedroom like dogs. At the moment he is on the threshold between sunroom and garden considering whether to go back and get them. He won’t. His second wife Ama is asleep in that bedroom, her lips parted loosely, her brow lightly furrowed, her cheek hotly seeking some cool patch of pillow, and he doesn’t want to wake her.
He couldn’t if he tried.”

‘Ghana Must Go’ is a book almost overflowing with themes and ideas, in fact sometimes you are amazed at how one story, and one family no matter how estranged, can create all the questions and thoughts that run through your head as you read. The main theme for me was acceptance; how we want to feel accepted by our family no matter how different from them we might be, how we seek acceptance in the place we choose to live and yet want the continued acceptance of where we are from, acceptance in society and most importantly acceptance of ourselves – oddly probably the hardest thing of all.

Home is another theme. It has been well documented that Selasi herself has moved around a lot; born in the UK where she returned to study some of the time, lived in Brookline in the USA, spent time in Switzerland and Paris, now lives in Rome and visits Ghana and Nigeria frequently. As I read ‘Ghana Must Go’ for the first time ever it occurred to me that home isn’t the building you place the label on but it is literally, cliché alert, where the heart is and that is because really you are your own home and the people you surround yourself with make different walls and a ceiling at different times. See, it really, really had me thinking and yet this is all done without bashing these ideas over your head or making the novel a huge epic tome, they just form as you follow the Sai families story.

It is also a book about consequences. Some thinks happen to us and we are obviously conscious of the consequences, in this case Kweku’s death in the present and his abandonment in the past and how it affected his wife Fola and their children both initially and as the years go on. Yet there are also the consequences of things that ripple through we might not think, for example with Fola and the Biafra war and how that changes her life or how our parents and grandparents might have acted or not acted upon things.

What I loved so much about ‘Ghana Must Go’ was that at its very heart it is the beautifully written and compelling tale of a fractured and dysfunctional family and the characters and relationships within it and also a book that really looks at, and gets us thinking, about so much more. It is a book filled with hidden depths and one that left me feeling a real mixture of emotions; heartache, shock, horror and also hope. At a mere 318 pages I think that is an incredible accomplishment and am very much in agreement with anyone else who thinks Taiye Selasi is one author to most definitely watch out for.

If you would like to find out more about the book I was lucky enough to spend an afternoon with Taiye last week and she is the latest author on You Wrote The Book here (I think it is my favourite interview so far, if I am allowed to have favourites?) so do have a listen. Who else has read ‘Ghana Must Go’ and if so what did you make of it? Is this book on your periphery at the moment? What are your thoughts on buzz and hype?

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Filed under Books of 2013, Review, Taiye Selasi, Viking Books

The Panopticon – Jenni Fagan

In the last few years I have become increasingly aware that blurbs can be a funny thing, sometimes they exaggerate and occasionally they just completely portray a different story from the book you actually read (though to be fair this could be the way in which you read the blurb I suppose). So in the last few years I have given up in the main. However there are times when a list of books is released and you have to find out more about the individual titles, this was the case when I first heard of Jenni Fagan’s debut novel ‘The Panopticon’ when it was announced as one of the Waterstones 11 last year. It sounded quite unlike any novel I had heard of with a fifteen year old ‘counter-culture outlaw’ who finds herself in The Panopticon escaping from ‘the experiment’. When we chose the title for The Readers Book Club this month I was looking forward to trying my hand at what promised to be my first delving into a sci-fi dystopian novel in some time, only it’s not a sci-fi dystopian novel, it is something quite different from that.

**** William Heinemann, hardback, 2012, fiction, 336 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

At fifteen years of age Anais Hendricks is someone who society has already given up on. As we meet her she has finally been found by the police who swiftly take her to The Panopticon, a home for severe young offenders, where she arrives covered in blood and with the suspicion of having put a policewoman into a coma.

From here we learn more about her current situation, her past home which may have lead her into the world of drugs, underage sex and crime (though many believe she is simply bad through and through, no further explanation needed). We also learn how Anais believes that she is being watched by ‘the experiment’, faceless beings who look human yet have no noses and remain nondescript, who she believes created her on a petri-dish just to see how many awful things a human can undertake.

Jenni Fagan asks a lot from her reader from the start of ‘The Panopticon’– and in doing so takes a lot of risks. The book is filled with swearing, violence, drug taking and underage sex from pretty early on (and it gets darker from here on in). You also find yourself, or this reader did anyway, not quite sure if you like Anais and if in fact she might just be a bad person through and through. Yet Fagan’s gamble pays off if you bear with it, a few chapters in and not only did I like and empathise with Anais but I enjoyed spending time with her. I found one minute she would make me laugh, then say something which would almost break your heart.

“…Also, there is the second time that you have stolen a minibus from outside Rowntree High School, but this time you,’ the woman scrolls her pen down the report in front of her, ‘drove it into a wall?’
‘I drove it intae the wall both times.’
‘Something was different the second time, Miss Hendricks?’
She raises her eyebrows, stops, like she is asking a pub-quiz question. The other three panel members look to see what I’m gonnae say.
‘The second time it was on fire,’ I respond after a minute.
‘Correct.’
Brilliant. A correct answer. What do I win? The woman’s running her eye up and down the charges again, looking for something. I hate. This chair. Their faces. That shite gold clock on the wall.”

She is a real conundrum. One moment she dreams of a quite life in Paris, the next she wants to kick someone’s head in, one minute she is reading a book about the supernatural with a naivety that is younger than her years, the next she is telling you about her last drug binge. She is an incredibly unreliable narrator and yet you cannot help but warm to her. Fagan plays a top trump here with the fact that Anais lets no-one into her life, apart from us the readers, which I found a really cleverly written aspect of the book.

 “Open my book, it’s mostly vampire stories just now, before that it was witches. I could handle being a vampire, an evil one with mansions everywhere. I’d fly, and read minds, and drink blood, until I could hear wee bats being born right across the other side of the world. I hear other people’s thoughts when I’m tripping, ay. I dinnae really know if it is thoughts actually, maybe it’s just voices. They urnay my thoughts – I know that much. It’s like tuning into a radio frequency that’s always there, but when you’re tripping you cannae tune it back out. I get voices in my head that urnay mine, and I see faces no-one else sees, but mostly it’s just when I am tripping, so I mustn’t be totally mental in the head yet.”

So what of ‘the experiment’, because after all this was what had intrigued me so much about the book and what I was hoping to be delved into. Well, to be honest, it wasn’t in the book as much as I was expecting or indeed would have liked. In fact if it hadn’t been for Anais, her narrative and her story, the book probably would have really disappointed me a little bit. Occasionally a sense of these mysterious men and the plan that Anais thinks they have for her appear on the periphery or are referred to, along with the rumour that Anais’ mother was only seen once smashing through a window of an asylum – where she promptly gave birth and escaped again – on a winged cat, yet I thought Fagan could have gotten away with doing it a lot more, making the reader question Anais’ reality and sense of reliability, even more.*

 “I dinnae say I’ll volunteer to help some old lady with her shopping, and her cleaning, and if I’m really fucking lucky she’ll take me under her wing and get tae like me and feed me apple pie and gin – and tell me her stories about the good old days. Those urnay the things I say.”

 As I mentioned, had Anais and her story not been the whole story, and therefore what made an impressive and thought provoking book (you cannot call a book like this ‘enjoyable’), then I might have been a tad disappointed by ‘The Panopticon’. However as it was I was bowled over by it. It is a confronting and occasionally horrifying novel that will make you feel as deeply uncomfortable as it will make you laugh – and that is all down to the strength of Jenni Fagan’s writing and the heroine that she creates. It is also a book that leaves you with a huge question but one I think I should leave those of you who go on to read it, and I do think you should, to discover and try and answer for themselves, I myself am still thinking about it all.

*Interestingly when recording The Readers Book Club on ‘The Panopticon’ last week with two sci-fi fans I was amazed to see that they didn’t think the experiment was real, where as I (the ‘literary’ head) completely did. But I think you are meant to question this throughout anyway.  they didn’t think the experiment was real, where as I (the ‘literary’ head) completely did. But I think you are meant to question this throughout anyway. You can listen to that discussion here.

Who else has read ‘The Panopticon’ and what did you make of it? Would you call it ‘literary’, ‘sci-fi’, ‘magical realism’ or, as I think, ‘gothic’? Does it even matter? Which other books have you read that had a blurb that didn’t quite match the book that you ended up reading? Are you like me and find you tend to ignore blurbs on the whole?

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Filed under Jenni Fagan, Review, William Heinemann Books

Savidge Reads Grills… Charlotte Rogan

Yesterday I told you all about ‘The Lifeboat’ a truly accomplished debut novel with wonderful prose which also gripped me like a thriller, is narrated by a wonderfully unreliable narrator and amazingly also bowled me over considering as it was a book set on a boat – and I don’t normally like those at all. Well today its author, Charlotte Rogan, takes part in a Savidge Reads Grills to discuss the novel, the hidden manuscripts locked away in her drawers and her writing and reading habits. You can also quite possibly win a copy of the book yourself today, read on for more…

Firstly can you describe the story of ‘The Lifeboat’ in a single sentence without giving any plot spoilers?

Grace Winter survives three weeks in an overcrowded lifeboat only to be put on trial for her life, but is she telling the truth at her trial or is she merely saving herself again?

Where did the idea for ‘The Lifeboat’ come from?

The idea for the story came from my husband’s old criminal law text. I was particularly intrigued by two 19th century cases where shipwrecked sailors were put on trial after being rescued. At the time, sailors thought they were protected by something called the Custom of the Sea, which was an unwritten code of conduct meant to govern the actions of those who found themselves far beyond the reach of any civil authority. For instance, it held that the captain should be the last one to leave a sinking ship, that the women and children should be saved first, and that the ship’s crew owed a special duty to the passengers. It also held that the concept of necessity made it acceptable to kill other people in order to survive as long as the victims were chosen fairly by drawing lots. The moral issues involved in lifeboat situations are what hooked me—not only on an individual level, but on a social level, for lifeboats can be used as metaphors for all sorts of situations faced by society today. And the law is so interesting. It is a way of telling a story so we can judge it, but in order to do that, it leaves out the fraility of mind and body, the human will to surive, the nuance, and the fear. The left out bits are what I wanted my story to be about.

This year has obviously been the anniversary of the Titanic’s disaster, was this something that inspired the book at all? Did you use anything from that case for ‘The Lifeboat’?

I was obviously aware of the Titanic disaster, but I was not thinking about it as I started to write the book. Later on in the writing process, though, it proved to be an invaluable resource. The volume of information gathered and written about the Titanic made it easy for me to research elements that were important to my story, such as lifeboat sizes, launching mechanisms, wireless communication devices, and shipping routes, to name a few.

How much research did you have to do for the novel, obviously you couldn’t blow a dingy up and just ask friends or relatives to push you out into the middle of a lake etc? Was there a particular story in history?

Besides researching technical details and reading some non-fiction accounts of survival at sea, I tapped into my own experiences growing up in a family of sailors. My father was intense and competitive, which had the effect of turning a casual family outing into a high-stakes, all-hands-on-deck game. We children would be lured onto the boat with talk of cruising to some far-off shore and cooking marshmallows on the beach, but sooner or later we would find outselves racing with the other boats we saw. My sister and I were too little to be of any help in this endeavor, and it was our job to not fall overboard and to stay out of the way. The weather sometimes turned bad, but we were not quitters! It made us seasick to go into the boat’s cabin during a storm, so I know what it is to huddle in the rain for hours on end surrounded by people who are stonger than I am.

Now I am rather renowned through Savidge Reads for not being a fan of a books set on boats (though I was a fan of this one) as I instantly think that with minimal characters and nothing but ocean around this could limit a novel, this isn’t the case with ‘The Lifeboat’ though is it? What were the pro’s and con’s of writing a novel primarily set on a lifeboat lost at sea?

I, too, have had the experience of not being taken with the premise of a novel and then absolutely loving the book. I think the best novels defy expectations, whether it be through unusual characters or surprising language or intricate plots. I also think closed room novels can be both challenging and liberating. Just the way having their options and horizons severly curtailed forces the characters in the lifeboat to draw on deeper parts of themselves, the novelist, too, has to reach beyond setting and plot when she limits herself in this way.

One of the advantages of fiction is that it has so many dimensions: there is the surface of the words and sentences; there is the linear dimension of plot; and there is the depth, which encompasses the myriad things that are going on in a charater at any particular moment in time: motives and memories, hopes and fears, sensations and thoughts. So there can be a wonderful freedom in limits—freedom to dig and magnify and explore more than just the who did what of a linear plot.

Now Grace, our protagonist, is a very interesting character and we never know if she is reliable or not as a narrator. Did you have fun with this element?

I did. My characters take on a life of their own, and I remember the first time I realized: “Grace isn’t telling the truth!” But my very next thought was: “Well, who does?” I love how Grace is by turns calculating and honest and how we catch her in a truth the way we might catch other people in a lie. I also liked the chance to explore how a woman might use her innate talents in order to survive just the way a stong man would use his. Grace is a keen observer and highly attuned to social cues and nuance. Those are traits that help her in the lifeboat, and at her trial, they help her again.

There is a certain amount of mystery to the book, hence why we have to be rather cloak and dagger, how hard was it to come up with twists in order to leave the reader wondering and wanting to know more throughout the novel?

Plot for me is difficult—and, frankly, it is not the first thing I read for. More important for me are the language and the characters and an author’s attempt to hit on something universal. But I eventually realized that most readers read for plot and that if I was going to increase my chances of finding a publisher, I was going to have to pay attention to it.

The key to most aspects of writing is revision, which includes something I call layering—going back over and adding and refining and intentionally making more of whatever I find in the pages I have written. The first draft is little more that hints and impulses, with the twists and complications accruing over time.

‘The Lifeboat’ has been chosen as one of the Waterstones 11 and been praised all over the book world, how has this been for you?

I spent the first six weeks after publication in a state of heightened anxiety. I was being asked to do a lot of things I had never done before and wasn’t particularly good at, like giving interviews and speaking in front of groups. My publishing team had shown such faith in me that I didn’t want to let them down.

Another scary thing about sending a novel out into the world is that a lot of very smart and knowledgable literary people will not only see it, but will publicly comment on it. I have fairly ambitious ideas about what a novel can be, so I am happy and grateful that some of the people who know about these things have understood what I was trying to do.

An unexpected and wonderful aspect to being published has been the opportunity to connect with a lot of people who are just as passionate about books and writing as I am. I didn’t know a lot of book people before, and meeting them has been both eye-opening and fun.

I have heard that while ‘The Lifeboat’ is officially your debut novel, you actually had/have several novels locked away in your drawers. Why is ‘The Lifeboat’ the first one that got published? Did you know it had something special about it? Do you think any of those other novels will be published in the future?

As I said, I got better at plotting over the years, which I think is one of the things that made The Lifeboat appealing to the publishers. But it was also the manuscript I was working on when I was introduced to my literary agent. I actually sent him two manuscripts, and while he liked the other one, he thought The Lifeboat would be easier to sell.

Once I finish a project, I tend to move on. While I could imagine going back to one of my old manuscripts, I don’t spend a lot of time looking back or worrying about all those pages in the drawer.

Before we discuss books further, let us discuss writing! When did you first know you wanted to be a writer? How long have you been writing for?

At this point, I have been writing for 25 years. I did not always want to be a writer—I wanted to be an architect. When I was in my mid-thirties, I took a leave of absence from my job at a construction company, and it seemed an opportune time to try something new. I decided I would write a novel, and I was lucky enough to take an inspirational creative writing workshop with Harold Brodkey. He is the person who opened my eyes to the layered and multi-faceted thing that writing can be.

When I started writing, I started reading differently. I read and re-read with the aim of figuring out how my literary heroes did it. I was not content to write something that didn’t work on several levels at once, and I think that is why I didn’t really care if I got published early on. What I wanted was to get good at the writing itself—for a long time, getting published seemed very secondary to that.

Describe your typical writing routine, do you have any writers quirks or any writing rituals?

The key to fitting writing into life as a parent is to take advantage of the corners of time, wherever you might find them. I used to have a beautiful fountain pen, and I would sometimes spend a good bit of my writing time tracking it down or racing off to buy cartridges when I was out of ink. I got used to the weight of it, which made other pens seem to lack substance. When the pen broke, I went through a period of withdrawal, but I realized I was better off without it. I became very happy to write in waiting rooms and carpool lines, on the backs of envelopes and receipts—whenever and with whatever I had at hand in those precious bits of time. My first writing space was in a basement, where I sat at a workbench amid the tools, and my second space was a funny room off the garage. Now I have the luxury of time and a pretty desk, but I am trying not to get too used to it.

Back to reading now… What is your favourite ‘guilty pleasure’ read?

I recently read a Michael Connelly mystery and enjoyed it. While that is not the type of book I usually go for, I didn’t feel guilty about it. I like literary fiction, but some of the books I am drawn to can only be read in small chunks, like A Book of Memories by Peter Nádas, which I am reading now. I am also reading everything by Albert Camus and A Land More Kind Than Home by Wiley Cash.

Which book, apart from your own, would you demand Savidge Reads and readers run out and buy right this instant, a book you would call your favourite?

Reading choices are so personal, and I don’t have a favorite. How about if I suggest four books I read in the last year and found worthy of my Life List? They are Remainder by Tom McCarthy (a novel as remarkable for what the author leaves out—expostition and explanation—as for what he puts in), The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton (a strange and compelling novel of performers and voyeurs), Zone One by Colson Whitehead (astonishing language and powers of observation, no plot), and The Unlikely Pilgrimmage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce (another Waterstones 11 pick; gorgeous language and story that touches the heart). I can never describe what I look for in a book, because the books that knock my socks off do so by being completely unpredictable, which is one of the things I love about them.

What is next for Charlotte Rogan?

My biggest challenge now is to juggle my new responsibilities so I can get back to the novel I am working on. I am superstitious when it comes to talking about unfinished work, so the only thing I will say is that it is set in South Africa. My husband and I spent almost a year in Johannesburg and fell in love with the country and the people.

Huge thanks to Charlotte for taking time to answer all my questions. ‘The Lifeboat’ is a truly wonderful book, you really need to give it a read. Oh… as if by magic you might just be able to win one of five copies, for more details pop here. Don’t say I don’t always think of you all.

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Filed under Charlotte Rogan, Savidge Reads Grills...

The Snow Child – Eowyn Ivey

I normally avoid books that are getting either a lot of hype in the book world in general or suddenly appearing in a flurry of rapturous reviews on book blogs. I am not sure quite why this is, but it is indeed the case. ‘The Snow Child’ by Eowyn Ivey has been one such book, rumblings about it started at the end of last year when proofs went out, then it got chosen for the Waterstones 11 and in the last few weeks I have seen it mentioned, with rave reviews, on several book blogs I visit. I have to admit had it not been for the fact that Gavin and I are interviewing Eowyn for The Readers tonight I would have left it a while, instead I am now going to add to the glowing reviews that you may well have already come across here, there and everywhere. This is a marvellous book.

Headline Books, hardback, 2012, fiction, 432 pages, kindly sent by the publishers

I have always been a fan of fairytales for adults. Books which spell bind you as an older, wiser reader and yet in some way bring back the comfort, endless magical possibility and thrills of your early reading years. Eowyn Ivey’s debut novel ‘The Snow Child’ is a prime example of a writer getting the mix of these two elements just right. Ivey takes the reader on a rather magical journey in Alaska in 1920, cleverly though she actually gives the book a timeless feel, as apart from a few famous authors of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s which feature in the book this could actually have been set at any period in the remote snowy wilderness, more on that later, lets discuss the story first.

 Jack and Mabel are a married couple who since the still birth of their first and only child have been drifting apart in their own separate insular isolated worlds within the very real world of isolation that is the Alaskan wilderness. This was meant to be the place that made them, a place where they started a whole new life together. Now in their 50’s what was once paradise has become a snowy frozen wasteland and not just in terms of their surroundings but also their emotions. Neither feels that they have a bond with the other, all the unspoken things becoming chasms rather than cracks in their relationship. Mabel in particular, who wanted this so much, if not the most, seems to be dealing with all of this the worst.

‘They were going to be partners, she and Jack. This was going to be their new life together. Now he sat laughing with strangers when he hadn’t smiled at her in years.’

One night however things change, thanks to a random snowball fight which proved to be one of the most moving scenes I have read in years (you need to read it to believe it – I admit I welled up), and the couple decide to build a snowman, only soon they have created a snow girl, yet the next morning it has vanished, replaced by a trail of a child’s footsteps from where it stood leading into the forest. It is not long after this that Jack and Mabel start to see, initially always in the peripheral, glimpses of a young girl and a fox dashing through the fields and woods near their house, they even separately start to talk to her. Could they have magically somehow created a child of their own from snow?

I will leave the plot at that point for fear of spoilers. I will say that Eowyn Ivey plays a very clever game of making the reader wonder if this girl could be real or not early on as when she does start to speak back it is never in quotation marks it is just inserted in the narrative. Could this therefore be a figment of this couples imagination or their way of dealing with grief, after all the other locals (including the wonderful Esther) have never seen this young girl and they have lived there longer and therefore must know everything. Also, because we get the internal dialogues of Jack and Mabel as the reader while they themselves barely communicate with one another, we wonder all the more.

Another clever device in Eowyn Ivey’s tale was including the Russian fairytale ‘Snegurochka’ (which inspired Arthur Ransom’s ‘The Little Daughter of the Snow’, which inspired Eowyn to write this novel itself) in the book as a favourite tale of Mabel’s as a child. She couldn’t read the language, but she could certainly understand the illustrations of this tragic children’s bedtime story. That tale too is of a man and woman, unable to have children, creating a girl out of snow, but could this mean that Mabel already knows the fate her snow child’s before her life has truly begun? If of course she exists.

If I have made that sound complicated I apologise as it’s not at all, it is all woven together wonderfully and this leads me to Eowyn Ivey’s writing which is second to none, and what a storyteller too. When I started the book I was thinking ‘how on earth is this going to last over 400 pages’ but it whizzed by, no saggy dragged out middle and most importantly no endless descriptions of snow. Without ever over egging the snowy pudding and mentioning snow every other word the cold atmosphere is always present but never mentioned too much. In fact I have probably mentioned snow much more in every sentence of this review than Eowyn does in the book herself. That said when she does its beautiful, especially in the dreams that haunt Mabel. A possible sign of cabin fever closing in?

‘Snowflakes and naked babies tumbled through her nights. She dreamed she was in the midst of a snowstorm. Snow fell and gusted around her. She held out her hands and snowflakes landed on her open palms. As they touched her skin, they melted into tiny, naked newborns, each wet baby no bigger than a fingernail. Then wind swept them away, once again just snowflakes among a flurry of thousands.’

I think the best thing which Eowyn Ivey did for me on top of all the above (this sounds like a gushing review because it is, I can find no real fault with the book at all) was that I really cared about all her characters, especially Jack and Mabel. With so much time to think and so little distraction they often reflect on their lives leading to this point. We, as the reader, are then given their background through these reflections and can see how much they loved each other, how it has all changed since and of course how it changes after the snow child appears. I really cared about them and hoped beyond all hope that this fairytale might have a happy ending for all concerned. Does it? Well, you would have to read the book to find out.

I was enjoying ‘The Snow Child’ so much from the start that I did something I hardly ever do. Rather than read it in chunks when I could, I simply devoted almost a whole day to it. I could have saved it and made it last, but sometimes you have to think ‘stuff that’ and just get lost in it all. So I did and read the book in pretty much one go just gorging on it. Now that is the sign of a truly magical book, I was completely spellbound… apart from having to pop the heater on and making the occasional hot drink as the snow really does feel like it’s coming off the page. This is a highly, highly recommended read.

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Filed under Books of 2012, Eowyn Ivey, Headline Review, Review

Waterstones 11

In the UK the bookstore chain Waterstones is something of a legend, it is also a company that is undergoing some big changes in the time of online shopping and the *cough* e-reader. One initiative that they came up with last year was the ‘Waterstones 11’ which what the eleven top debut authors to look out for in 2011, now they have brought it back for 2012 and it is rather an intriguing list.

I have said that in 2012 I will be reading more of the books from the never ending pile of reading delights that makes up the TBR. In terms of modern fiction I am probably going to steer away from all the prize long lists (and quite possibly the shortlists, we will see) this year, this list however is one I am going to be keeping in mind and on the reading periphery in the main because it is debut novels but also because after having gone off and found out more about them it is a really mixed and varied list. Here it is for you in detail…

   

The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan (William Heinemann)
Absolution by Patrick Flanery (Atlantic)
Shelter by Frances Greenslade (Virago)

  

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach (Fourth Estate)
The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey (Headline Review)
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce (Doubleday)

  

The Land of Decoration by Grace McCleen (Chatto & Windus)
Signs of Life by Anna Raverat (Picador)
The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan (Virago)

 

The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker (Simon & Schuster)
Care of Wooden Floors by Will Wiles (Harper Press)

I am certainly not going to say that I am going to read them ALL, for a start The Art of Fielding is a book I have seen everywhere and yet with its baseball theme really doesn’t float my fictional boat at all. Sorry. However, I have three of them already (in italics) and I am certainly intrigued by ‘Shelter’, Iand I think that ‘Care of Wooden Floors’ had me at the title which is odd as I wouldn’t think it was a very me one if I am honest. ‘The Panopticon’ also sounds particularly bonkers and Dan of Dog Ear Discs has raved about ‘The Lifeboat’ which he has got early. I have heard from Novel Insights who was at the event and apparently she has got me a sampler of all of them so I can find out more. I have noticed though lots of them aren’t out right now, or for quite some time, maybe they will be released early?

Have you heard much pre-release mention of any of these? Is there a title which you are particularly looking forward to? Do you like the idea of bookstores promoting books like this? Which debut novel coming out in 2012 would you have popped on the list that may be missing?

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Filed under Book Thoughts

When God Was A Rabbit – Sarah Winman

I normally do long intro’s into my book thoughts, but I am trying some new things with my blogging and so decided I wouldn’t meander introducing ‘When God Was A Rabbit’ by Sarah Winman and would just cut to the chase and say please give this book a whirl, its really rather good, and read on to find out why you should, there’s lots of reasons so be warned you might find yourself instantly buying the book by the end, which is a good thing…

9780755379309
‘When God Was A Rabbit’
has been described as a love story between a brother and sister. Now if you are like me you might be worried that this is headed into incest territory, but fear not, it is nothing of the kind. I would describe this book as a coming of age meets family saga in which we follow the lives of Eleanor Maud (aka Elly) and her big brother Jo as they grow up with secrets they share, and discover the highs and lows of life both together and separately and the special bond they have between them. I would also says it’s a book of friendship and the people who come into our lives no matter for how long or short a time and make an impression. This might sound like a vague summing up of the book but one of the joys I found, and I did find this a really good read, whilst turning the pages was discovering who or what was around every corner.

It’s also about time, and as we follow the family we too see the world events unfold around them from the late 1960’s until more recent years and covers things from family secrets, loves and loses and such subjects as John Lennon and Diana’s death to 9/11. So it’s really about two people through time. It sounds so simple yet it is a book that has been meticulously crafted, not so that we see the authors hard work, but in the sense that the people we follow seem to step off the page. In fact I kept thinking of David Nicholls ‘One Day’ and the nostalgic feeling and so real you feel like you’re their best mate lead characters. Only these are of course siblings, not on-off lovers.

Sarah Winman is without question a very exciting new writer that I think we all need to keep our eyes on. Her prose is rhythmic and I found the first hundred pages simply unputdownable (cliche alert, sorry) as we meet Elly and her family and the cacophony of characters in her life. Seriously, the characters are marvellous. I did wonder if Winman, being from an acting background, has simply created a list of the sort of characters she has wanted to play. Winman’s swift way of summing them up in a is genius. No matter how little time a character is called into this world they are fully fleshed out be it in a single sentence or paragraph. There was one scene between Aunt Nancy and one of her movie obsessed girlfriends, who has renamed herself Katherine Hepburn and is hardly in the book at all, which had me in hysterics and showed the full genius of Winman’s ability to characterize in a minimal way.

“’Sorry I’m late!’ shouted Nancy one day, as she rushed into a café to meet her.
‘Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,’ said K.H.
‘That’s alright then,’ said Nancy sitting down.
Then looking round, with a raised voice, K.H. said, ‘Of all the gin joints in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine.’
Nancy noticed the people in the café staring at them.
‘Fancy a sandwich?’ she said quietly.
‘If I have to lie, steal, cheat or kill, as God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again.’
‘I’ll take that as a yes then,’ said Nancy picking up a menu.”

In fact the level of humour in ‘When God Was A Rabbit’ was something I wasn’t expecting and is a tool Winman uses well particularly if things are getting quite dark, which the book does do quite a lot. In fact it was a rabbit named ‘god’ who stole the show  in terms of bittersweet humour in the first half of the book as Elly uses his ability to ‘talk’, which only she can hear, to deal with horrid moments, so when she has heard some bad news she will go and pet god who will then say something like ‘ouch you little, s**t’ (this has me laughing as I type) and again shows how Winman effortlessly gets into the head of or protagonist Elly, especially in her formative years and in times where she doesn’t quite know what to do with herself or how to copewith life’s twists and in many ways escapes.

I did find it interesting that the opening line is ‘I divide my life into two parts’ because to me this is a book of two halves and is also where it becomes telling that this is a debut novel. Debut novels tend to have a real thrust and drive to them, as this book does (though its technically Winman’s second, the first didn’t get published) for the first half which bowled me over. They can also want to say a lot, sometimes too much. Whilst Winman doesn’t do this I did find that when a friend of Elly and Joe’s was kidnapped in Dubai (in the middle of the book) and plastered all over the news, I started wondering just how much could happen to one family even in the most random or distant of ways. This happened again when John Lennon gets shot… on Elly’s birthday, and this occasionally seemed a touch too much. Then again sometimes that is life isn’t it? It by no means ruined the book at all, it just took a tiny bit of the magic off. I should comment Winman on the ending too as it was a risk, and one the reader sees coming, possibly as in my case with some trepidation, but which I thought actually paid off when in some cases it could have gone the other way. I will say no more on that though.

My only other slight criticism would be that ‘When God Was A Rabbit’ pushes its point home too hard on occasion especially in its gay sensibility. I think the fact that every other character in the book happened to be gay was brilliant and I could see what Sarah Winman was doing, but that isn’t the way it is in real life is it? It’s meant to be one in ten people, not one in every two. I also wasn’t sure how I felt, in terms of stereotyping, about some characters for example Arthur, who comes into the book about half ay through, is a wonderful character lovely older gay man on the whole but did then fall into a cliché by screaming or saying to our narrator ‘popularity, my dear, is as overrated as a large member’. Whilst yes it did make me laugh, that fact it’s said to a girl of twelve seemed a bit wrong, it reflects that rather archaic view that old gay men can be rather pervy and inappropriate and one we should be stamping out. Maybe I am being too critical there?

Those criticisms might seem a little harsh, or make me sound a little like the Grinch of books trying to see flaws; I just want to give it a full rounded review and in doing so had to point out some of it’s pitfalls too. You see initially after reading it I was a little conflicted about it, however with time for the dust to settle I realised I really, really liked it. There’s a warmth in this novel which is quite unlike any other I have read and it lingers. So as I was saying all in all I really, really, really enjoyed ‘When God Was A Rabbit’. It’s a book you gulp down for the first half and then watch unfold more delicately in the second. It’s one that deserves to be read, so I hope you will. It’s a book you won’t forget and, if you are like me, will grow and grow on you after it finishes. 9/10

This book was kindly sent by the publisher.

I am actually rather surprised this didn’t make ‘The Orange Longlist’ this year but it was one of the Waterstones 11 and has been picked up by Richard and Judy latest book club (and might just have been submitted for another award – I think I can share that with you, oops maybe not) so I am sure it will be getting much more attention and it deserves it. It is definitely one to read if you loved ‘One Day’ by David Mitchell, as I mentioned, and also if you like the bittersweet. Which debut novel have you read recently which has rather bowled you over? Has anyone else read ‘When God Was A Rabbit’ and what did you think?

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Filed under Books of 2011, Headline Review, Review, Richard and Judy, Sarah Winman