Tag Archives: Wilkie Collins

The Essex Serpent – Sarah Perry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some New Ambush – Carys Davies

The first book of the year to me is always an important one. I used to pick them willy nilly and then would have willy nilly reading years, as it were. In the last few years I have got wiser and so now take a bit of time deciding which book to read. I chose Carys Davies’ debut collection Some New Ambush because I hoped it would fit the bill of what I want in the reading year ahead. I want to read corking writing, marvellous stories and things that are a little quirky which might be lesser known. Oh and I really want to read quite a few beloved authors back lists this year too, and last year with The Redemption of Galen Pike Carys immediately was sent into that category. So I opened Some New Ambush and promptly devoured it in a day.

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Salt Publishing, 2007, paperback, short stories, 110 pages, bought by myself for myself

It is very difficult to try and categorise Some New Ambush because with every story Carys Davies takes you somewhere totally different. We might be in a bookstore cafe in America, and then off to a small welsh town. We might head to an island where everything is red or we may take a wander in an airport on the outskirts of London. In a similar vein time varies as much as place sometimes we are in a magical land and time; like the island of red in Red Rose, we may be off with Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins visiting an asylum; as we do in The Visitors or we could be in the present day in a school possibly just down the road; as with Historia Calamitatum Mearum or we may be in a story that could take place in any time. There is no boundaries to where these stories may lead to, which is wonderful, no story is anything like the others.

There are however some similarities with the stories and some themes. In the latter case, in all fifteen of Carys Davies stories something is lost. What is really, really difficult though to do is try and explain this in a way which will not give anything away as with every tale of Davies’ there is always an element of surprise somewhere and I defy you to be able to see any of them coming. It might be a friendship or it might be hope. So where was I? Oh yet loss and losing things, this seems to be a theme in every one of the tales in Some New Ambush. It might be a friendship or it might be your dry cleaning. It might be a bracelet, it could be a child. It could be love, it could be hope.

I always hoped it wasn’t someone old who took Bobby. He was afraid of old people. He’d look at the yellow whites of their eyes and their ugly teeth and the shiny brown skin on their hands and then push his face into Lily’s skirts and hide. He was afraid of old people and dogs and witches, though he was very fond indeed of fairy tales and I always thought it likely that he was lured away, not with the offer of sweets or a drive in a nice car, but with the promise of a story.

If this sounds all a bit maudlin, fret not for one of the things that I love most about Carys Davies’ writing is that there is always humour within, some of it might be pretty dark but the humour is there all the same. There is also always the sense of the fairy tale and the magical within the stories too, without these ever really being fairy tales, well with the exception of Rose Red I suppose which feels more like a fable. Instead I think Carys leaves in a hint of the magical and more often that not she pays homage to fairy tales, which were really the first short stories, and then twists them in a modern more ‘natural’ way. Tales like Pied Piper, Waking the Princess, Ugly Sister and Gingerbread Boy may have names of fairytales past or nod to them yet the magic that Carys is celebrating really is the everyday and it works wonderfully. Even in other stories like The Captain’s Daughter when you think you are getting a fairy tale or something supernatural a surprise will come along and give you something quite different. Those surprises again, how I love them as they are always better than what you could imagine.

These days he seems worse. He appears frightened now, when I leave the room, a look of startled alarm freezes his features. There are times when we are out in the street when he truly does not seem to know where he is, and if I let go of his arm for two seconds to go and post a letter, or to go and get the Pay & Display sticker for the car, I come back to find him standing next to it, apparently bewildered and afraid, anxiously toeing the gravel with the point of his shoe. One day in the kitchen a while ago he was making one of his Bakewell tarts and he couldn’t remember what an egg was.
Then last Thursday morning, he came downstairs without his hand.

Just as it is hard to talk about any of these stories in depth for fear of spoiling them, as obviously you are all going to go and get your hands on them straight away, it is also very hard to pick favourites when a collection such as this one is so strong. Naturally I loved going to an asylum with Wilkie Collins and (to a lesser extent, ha) Charles Dickens in The Visitors. Opener Hwang is a wonderful tale of two friends regular meeting and bitching about their scary dry cleaner, which soon becomes a very upsetting and then darkly funny tale of revenge. Monday Diary might just break your heart as a boy discusses why his mother calls him a gift from god. Historia Calamitatum Mearum is a tale of a feud between a latin teacher and a technology teacher, which looks at history vs modernisation in a very witty way. Ugly Sister is a tale of two sisters who have become inseperable, now living together in their older years still trying to get men and taking it in turns to win them with a twist you will not see coming and possibly another one after that. Metamorphosis starts as a tale of mild stalking in a library that leads to madness. See I could go on.

That said, Pied Piper did completely blow me away, which is honestly saying something when you love every single story out of a whopping fifteen. A woman who has been unable to have children finds a baby abandoned in the sand dunes on her birthday whilst taking one of her regular trips out to see the sea. As there is no one there and as the baby needs care she takes it. Back in her village everyone, from her husband to her neighbours, each knows the baby isn’t hers and they keep up the pretence for years and then something happens that changes the life of everyone in that village. I can’t say what, or really say much more, but it completely shocked me, broke me and left me unable to do anything except make a strong cup of sweet tea before I could go on. It is an absolutely amazing short story and does in ten pages what some novels don’t manage to achieve in 400.

As you might have guessed I simply adored Some New Ambush. Having read this and The Redemption of Galen Pike there is no dout that Carys Davies is my favourite writer of short stories. She can create a character in a single sentence, build complete worlds in a mere paragraph and create entire lives in mere pages. She is just wonderful. I am only sad there isn’t a new collection on the horizon, though I have heard one is being worked on thank goodness. If you haven’t read her work then please, please, please do. What a start to my reading year, the only worry now is if anything else can live up to this?

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Filed under Books of 2016, Carys Davies, Review, Salt Publishing, Short Stories

The Happy Reader

A few weeks ago, watching either Jen or Sanne on their book vlogs, I learnt of a wonderful new quarterly magazine all about books (or Bookish Quarterly as it says on the bottom of the front cover) appropriately called The Happy Reader. I had to get my mitts on it and did forthwith super swiftly. Now two issues in and read, with a third having just arrived I thought I would report back on what has instantly become my new favourite quarterly so that you don’t miss out on it.

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The Happy Reader is a collaboration between Penguin Books and the brilliant magazine Fantastic Man and what they have come up with is a cool and quirky magazine that comes in two halves. The first half is an interview with a well known reader about their reading life, and through the books they have read getting more insight into their life in general. The second half of the magazine is dedicated to a particular Penguin Classic and a host of features based around the book that either enhances your reading of the book or makes you want to go and read the book. Having read one book featured in one issue and not having read the other I can say that the idea behind the second works as planned in both cases.

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In the first issue we were given the treats of both actor Dan Stevens and one of my favourite books of all time, Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White. The first half of the magazine sees author Naomi Alderman interviewing Dan Stevens about judging the Man Booker, Downtown Abbey, his latest film The Guest etc. Initially I was thinking is this just going to be him plugging his movie but actually what unravels, because they are talking about their mutual love of books, is a really insightful interview about all of the above plus his being in adaptations of famous books, working on audio books and discussions on books I now want to read like Iron John by Robert Bly. I was sold on the books and sold on Dan, plus I loved the insight into the Man Booker judging and what he read during filming of Downtown Abbey and how he concealed books on set. You will have to read the interview to find out all…

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In the second half of the magazine it goes all things The Woman in White. We have a fashion shoot of, erm, women in white clothes and also some really, really fascinating and quirky articles that connect to the book in various ways. Each month editor Seb Emina introduces the book in a way that magically refreshes the memory of anyone who has read it, yet doesn’t give anything away if you haven’t, just the desire to go and buy it. As it was a book that was serialised Henry Jefferys looks at how people of the time became addicted to it, like they might a substance, and Lilie Ferrari discusses how you write a serialised gripping drama as she used to on Eastenders.

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If that wasn’t enough there is also an article on women associated with colours (lady in red, woman in black, etc) by Emily King which is brilliant, the history of some of the iconography of the book and its adaptations, a map for The Woman in White walk around London and a recipe for Count Fosco’s favourite chocolates. Brilliant.

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Issue two focuses the first half on an interview with rock star Kim Gordon, who I have to admit (the shame) I had not heard of until I read this though I recognised the bands she had been in, by the end of which I wanted to read her memoir Girl in a Band. Interestingly she talked a lot about the memoirs she has read, or in some brilliantly honest cases half read and got bored of, as well as what she likes to read on tour and the reading of her informative years. She also talked about her love of The Good Wife which I have recently started and become addicted to and so felt she was a kindred spirit. She also recommends seven corking books (Dan Stevens also does this) at the end of her interview all of which I want to go and read from a wide spectrum of authors and genres. Again you need to read the article to find out what they are…

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The book that The Happy Reader focuses on this time is The Book of Tea by Kakuzo Okakura which I have never heard of before but thanks, again, to Seb Emina really want to read as it seems a book that defies genres. There are some more wonderful articles (bar one which was interesting though about floristry not tea) that look at tea in some unusual ways. Nicholas Lezard looks at ‘Teaism’ which in Japan is a formal ceremony, a chain of specialist tea shops I am so going to in September in Washington D.C and in the UK is the great debate on how tea should be prepared and poured. (I am a milk after not before man!) There are also articles on the designs of original/formal tea rooms, Japanophilia (cultural obsession not something rude), the importance of tea in prisons as well as a guide to some of the finest teas by Jeff Koehler.

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So as you can see lots and lots and lots to love about The Happy Reader which does as it says on the tin and will have you happily reading away. I am very excited to read Issue 3 which features comedian Aziz Ansari and the travel writing classic Granite Island by Dorothy Carrington which has not long arrived. I haven’t managed to read that book yet (or even get it) but I might try and get M.P. Sheil’s The Purple Cloud in time for Issue 4 this autumn.

If you would like to get your mitts on The Happy Reader or subscribe then head here (it is a bargain for what you get). Have any of you already subscribed and if so what do you think? Have you read any of the books mentioned in the issues so far? What are your thoughts on literary magazines and the like anyway?

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Filed under Book Thoughts, Penguin Books, Random Savidgeness

When You Fancy An Author Binge…

As I was going through my book cull I was astounded by how many authors I didn’t realise I had rather a lot of works of. This is the problem with housing your books on doubled up shelves and in boxes. Admittedly some of them had been sent to me, yet I wouldn’t have kept a hoard of an authors work if I hadn’t read one of their books or didn’t think that they would be my cup of tea, would I? In many of the cases of these authors whose backlist I didn’t realise I owned lots and lots of I kept a note that I really should get a wriggle on and read some of their books. (I have started to wonder if I should try the whole book jar thing to make this happen more often!) In one case though as I looked at their books, and remembering what I have read of them before, I suddenly had the urge to have a complete book binge on one author.

This does not happen often. In fact I don’t think, apart from Discovering Daphne way back when or with the Sensation Season when I had a big Wilkie Collins binge, is it something I have done more than two or three times since I have started this blog seven and a bit years ago. Yet on rare occasions I have been tempted to just have a big old binge (mainly with crime series) and have held back. Why? I am not 100% sure, I think it is magpie syndrome and I simply always have a peak at all the other books I have to read between every few chapters, well when I am reading in bed anyway. I also don’t want to run out of reading material, which is why with Discovering Daphne I only selected a certain amount of books as I don’t think Du Maurier is going to publish anything else anytime soon being dead and all, though maybe some gems will suddenly be found.

This time though I am going to follow my gut instinct and see what happens as I head off into the world of Philip Hensher.

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As you can see the binge urge took over so much I went to the library and got King of the Badgers and The Northern Clemency  from the library even though I had The Emperor Waltz, The Missing Ink and Scenes from Early Life on my shelves. You see I have actually read one and a quarter of his books before. The first was King of the Badgers which I got from the library, it was a huge hardback and some other so and so ordered it so I had to give it back and have always meant to re-read/finish off, the second was Scenes from Early Life which I read for The Green Carnation and we shortlisted. I haven’t reviewed it for that reason and actually fancy re-reading it without the judging pressure. I also want to read some new to me stuff and will be taking The Northern Clemency, a book that is actually on my draft 40 before 40 list I am recreating, to Newcastle with me next weekend when I need a nice long read or two.

I think I will restart The King of the Badgers tomorrow after I finish the new Kate Grenville. Whilst I say this is a binge, I will probably read something or some things in between the two though, and maybe if once I have discovered I love his writing (I am going for the positive because its in my nature and because of what I have read before) I want to save The Emporor’s Waltz for a rainy day that is fine too – I am getting better at no pressure.

Does that make this more of an author urge (which sounds filthy) than an actual binge? Either way I am following my gut. Have you read any of Philip Hensher’s work and what did you make of it? Which authors have you binged on and how did the binge go, or have you never binged at all?

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Filed under Book Thoughts, Random Savidgeness

Leaving The Luminaries…

Giving up on a book for me is no easy thing. I have always had the feeling that people don’t tend to talk about the books they give up on as it seems like a failure. Here I may just be imposing how I feel onto everyone else, as for me if I give up on a book I always feel rather cross with myself. Though not as wracked with guilt as I used to get when I had the, now seemingly rather mad, attitude that any book I started I simply had to finish. I do have a page 50, with a page 60 clause, rule now with books and if they aren’t working by then, then it is fine (and indeed time) to put them down and move on to something else. This year I have noticed though that there have been a few books I have simply stopped half way through one of them being one of the most infamous books of the year, Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries

Luminaries

It’s all a blur…

In so many ways this should have been a book that I adored. A tale set in 1866 containing mystery, murder, madness, fallen women, I could go on. In many ways the tale that Walter Moody finds himself soon embroiled in after his arrival in the gold mining town of Hokitika, in New Zealand, could fall under one of my very favourite genre’s ‘the sensation novel’. As I started I had the highest of hopes, especially hearing the author loved Wilkie Collins, we were set to be best friends and this book would cement that friendship. Instead I found myself stuck and feeling more and more demoralised as I went on.

I have tried and tried, or struggled and struggled as the case may be, to love or at least like The Luminaries three times this year. The first time I simply read it in big gulps, the chapters initially being (a rather densely packed) 40 pages in length, yet these were taking me ages to read. I kept notes of all the characters and goings on, how the spider’s web was being woven etc, yet still I couldn’t get a grip on it all. So I stopped, it was making me resentful. Then I tried listening to the audio book, this worked until I got a few chapters past my previous pit stop and then as more and more characters and twists were introduced I found myself once again dumbfounded. A few weeks ago I tried again from the beginning -reading a chapter at night, then listening to it again the next day, then reading the next chapter the next night and so on and so on. This got me further but the same issues came up, too many characters, too many twists and I also started to feel like I was being played and not in an altogether friendly way.

Eleanor Catton is clearly a very clever woman, yet something about The Luminaries becomes a little smug along the way. The characters are clearly symbols and pieces of a much bigger jigsaw piece (from reviews like the lovely and normally very patient and positive Rachel have confirmed this) yet for me this was all done at the expense of getting to know them and giving a monkey’s about them. Catton has over 800 pages in this book, I started to feel if she spent as much time fleshing out each character so I started to like them and spot differences in their personalities rather than focusing on retelling and retelling the story from points of view and endlessly describing the scenery I might have got to grips with it. Whilst I understand all characters are there to tell a story or be a part of a plot or a device I am a firm believer that you should never see it. I could see the strings linking the characters to their puppet master (that is simply an analogy, not meant to sound rude) above on one too many occasions and it kept breaking the spell.

Of course the one thing I should remind myself more often is that, like people and music and many other things, we can’t always get on with everything we read. It doesn’t stop me from being really cross when this happens though, the last time it happened  on this scale was with Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad which oddly enough was a book as equally fawned over whilst I was sat wanting to throw it around the room. Interestingly that book I also went between reading, listening and even using the app – though I finished it maybe I need to learn if I need that much help with a book then it is a lost cause to me. It is horrid to feel like the only one at the party not really enjoying yourself and I wonder if without all the buzz on blogs and social media maybe I would have given up on The Luminaries long before, instead I wanted to join in and so only finally gave up the ghost last week. Sigh.

I don’t tend to talk about the books I don’t finish or why I don’t finish them, but in this case because the book has been such a huge book of the year and because it has taken up so much of my reading time I thought I should, maybe I should more often – though these wouldn’t be reviews, you can’t review a book you haven’t finished can you? I could bring back unreviews I guess, what do you think? Also if any of you have tried or even conquered The Luminaries I would love your thoughts on it be they good, bad or indifferent. I would also love to know about the books everyone else has loved or have reached mass critical acclaim and have left you thinking ‘WTF?’ Ha! Oh, and anything else about giving up books really, not that I ask a lot of you all!

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Filed under Book Thoughts, Random Savidgeness, Un-Reviews

Other People’s Bookshelves #19 – Alison Hope

The weekend is the perfect time to be leisurely isn’t it? What could be nicer than whiling away some time nosing through someone else’s book shelves while talking about books? Well Saturday’s are set to become the perminant home of Other People’s Bookshelves for the foreseeable future and this week we are all popping round to Alison Hope’s who runs the book blog HeavenAli to have a gander and a natter about her books. Grab a cuppa,  and plonk yourself down on an available chair, I am sure she won’t mind!

Firstly tell us a little more about yourself?

Having always read – since I was a very small girl, and now coming up to my 45th birthday I realise I have read a lot of books. In the last year or so I have discovered the absolute joy of re-reading – so often I fear I have read all the best things and envy people their first experiences with books I have loved. These days I think I read far more books published before about 1950 than contemporary books – although I do enjoy a lot of contemporary writers too. Engaging with other readers and bloggers has been a greater pleasure than I had ever anticipated – and I am trying hard to make my reviews and blog posts worthy of the bigger audience I now seem to have. Some of my favourite authors are Thomas Hardy, Elizabeth Taylor, Wilkie Collins, Anita Brookner, Jane Austen and Barbara Pym. I like golden age crime novels, such as Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers and Ngaio Marsh. I don’t like modern crime much – although now again I read one or two I have been told are not too gruesome – I don’t like fantasy or sci-fi. I mainly read classics, and literary fiction, and a few memoirs and biographies. Despite my love of books I do have a kindle – which I like very much, but I read far more real books.

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

The books on my bookcases are what I consider to be the ones I keep, my permanent book collection. However I don’t keep all the books that I read, I mainly keep the ones I love the most.  As a bookcrosser (although no longer as active as I once was) I am always happy to pass on books I don’t want to keep, to other bookcrossing members at our local monthly meet ups. I enjoy sharing books I have enjoyed, so the ones I pass on are certainly not just books I haven’t enjoyed, they are usually just ones I think it unlikely I will want to read again. I do find however, that I am keeping more and more books these days, going back to my bad old ways of almost hording my books.

Do you organise your shelves in a certain way? For example do you have them in alphabetical order of author, or colour coded? Do you have different bookshelves for different books (for example, I have all my read books on one shelf, crime on another and my TBR on even more shelves) or systems of separating them/spreading them out? Do you cull your bookshelves ever?

None of my bookcases are organised alphabetically. I can’t explain why – but I don’t particularly like that way of organising my shelves.  Many of my books are shelved with other books of the same editions. This system has broken down a little as I have moved books around and acquired new bookcases – but most of my Virago books, Persephone books and Penguin classics and Oxford Classics which are not residing on my TBR are shelved together with other books with the same colour spine.  My TBR is also all shelved together – it takes up more than two shelves, with small stacks of books sitting in front of rows of others. I have one bookcase that has no system; things are rather unceremoniously shoved on to the shelves. This bookcase really needs weeding out, a job I keep putting off. The books I keep to pass on through bookcrossing are in a box in a cupboard –which seems wrong – I do feel that books should be shelved – but that is where they are until they get moved on.

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

Oh dear this is something I really wish I knew the answer to. I have been trying to work out what it might have been but have no idea. All through my childhood my bookishness was encouraged by my parents, although I used the library a lot back then, I was given books for Christmas, and had book vouchers from relatives nearly every year. I can remember being obsessed by the Enid Blyton Mallory Towers and St Clair boarding school books, I am sure I must have bought those with my pocket money, and The Famous Five books too – but no I don’t have any old Enid Blyton books in my house now.

Are there any guilty pleasures on your bookshelves you would be embarrassed people might see, or like me do you have a hidden shelf for those somewhere else in the house?

I wouldn’t be embarrassed by any of the books on my shelves at all; as I think it perfectly alright to have anything I have enjoyed residing there. I do have numbers 1 – 18 of the Agatha Raisin books – although they are some of the books that are likely to be culled at some point. They were for a while a kind guilty pleasure (cosy reading I would probably call it) – but I thought the later ones quite poor in comparison to the earlier books – and I have stopped reading them. It’s unlikely I’ll go back to them, so I do feel they are taking up valuable space – they are shelved in the spare room, not to hide them, but I just like my favourite books to be the ones that are more visible.

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Which book on the shelves is your most prized, mine would be a collection of Conan Doyle stories my Great Uncle Derrick memorised and retold me on long walks and then gave me when I was older? Which books would you try and save if (heaven forbid) there was a fire?

One book? – but there are so many I could choose – but two books do spring to mind. I have a lovely 1950’s first edition of The Village by Marghanita Laski that I found by chance in the castle bookshop in Hay on Wye. I was on a lovely weekend away with some good bookish friends and I didn’t even realise at first that I had found a book that had been re- issued by Persephone. I still don’t have a Persephone edition of it to go with it – but a forthcoming trip to the Lambs Conduit street shop may remedy that.   I also have an American edition of I capture the Castle, which was sent to me by a New York bookcrosser about seven years ago, not long after I first joined the bookcrossing community. I have selfishly kept that one instead of passing it on as it is so pretty, and having read that particular copy twice I am loathe to part with it.  I am also rather fond of the three Barbara Pym novels which I have in the Moyer Bell edition – (there is a fourth one of those winging its way to me from the USA that I found on Abebooks recently). I also love each of my Persephone books and guard them jealously I won’t even loan those out to family.

I also have a small collection of Agatha Christie first editions which I do rather love.  None of them are the very early or rare ones, a few of them are just book club editions so not even real first editions as book club editions always came out a year later – but I am rather fond of them, as I have loved Agatha Christie since I was eleven, and several of them are real first editions. The earliest one I have is from about 1951. The price of them does seem to have shot up rather, since I first started buying them, so I haven’t added any to my collection for a few years.

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

My parents always had a lot of books – many were non-fiction and seemed far too dull to excite my imagination when I was young.  However I do remember loving the look of my mother’s book The Far Pavilions by MM Kaye it looked so big, sumptuous and romantic – I also liked the look of Gone with the Wind – for the same reasons I suspect. I read Gone with the Wind – my mother’s copy – when I was about seventeen I think, and loved it, but it was many many years before I read The Far Pavilions.  I can’t remember where the copy I read came from, it may have been my mother’s snaffled when she was weeding out her own shelves, but I don’t currently have either of those on my shelves.

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If you love a book but have borrowed the copy do you find you have to then buy the book and have it on your bookshelves or do you just buy every book you want to read?

I certainly have bought my own copies of books I have borrowed, though I don’t think I have to. I sort of store it away in a wish list in my brain, so that should I come across a copy of the book in a charity bookshop or somewhere I will undoubtedly snaffle it up. Certainly there are books I have read and loved that I want to own, one recent example was The Two Mrs Abbots by D E Stevenson – the third Miss Buncle book – I ordered it from the library and it took six months to come in. I devoured it and loved every word, and so want my own copy. I heard a rumour that Persephone may publish it in the future –I live in hope.

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

Well I added Ruby’s Spoon by Anna Lawrence Pietroni to my permanent collection of books after I finished it a few days ago. I read it a couple of days before meeting the author at a local meet up group I attend. I took my copy with me to get signed and bought two more copies one each for my mother and sister. I have also added a couple more books to my TBR – but they are both books I am certain to keep once they have been read. They are Jamaica Inn by Daphne Du Maurier and Civil to Strangers by Barbara Pym which I bought for the Barbara Pym centenary read-a-long.

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

Oh goodness – yes so many. I can’t even begin to list them. Of course I want more Persephone books, and there are many original green Virago Modern Classics that I want too. I especially want Winifred Holtby’s short stories Remember Remember in original green, very hard to get hold of – and would rather like a copy of Lolly Willows by Sylvia Townsend Warner, also in green. I actually bought a green copy of Lolly Willows for a fellow Viragoite  – for a secret Santa gift – I hadn’t realised it was so hard to get. I really am a sucker for physically beautiful editions, of which there are so many coming out these days –  beautifully designed editions of my favourite classics are the ones I particularly covert. I have recently acquired a few penguin clothbound classics – now there is a tiny part of me that wants them all – but such excess would be madness.

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

Oh my I don’t know! That I am a reader of fiction first and foremost and that I like classics; Modern Classics and nineteenth century classics in particular.  That I like mainly women writers, with a few notable exceptions, the Viragos and Persephone books rather give that away. I’m not sure If anyone perusing my shelves would think I was widely read – I don’t claim to be,  I don’t have lots of different genres, and really not that many non-fiction.  I don’t know if there is anything I would want them to think – I’m not sure it matters – I just like what I like – as we all do.

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A huge thanks to Alison for taking part in Other People’s Bookshelves. Don’t forgot if you would like to participate (and I would love you to – hint, hint, hint) in the Other People’s Book Shelves series then drop me an email to savidgereads@gmail.com with the subject Other People’s Bookshelves, thanks in advance. In the meantime… what do you think of Alison’s responses and/or any of the books that she mentioned?

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Other People’s Bookshelves #18 – Victoria James

It is time to spend a little while leisurely nosing around someone elses collection of books with the latest installment of Other People’s Bookshelves. This time around we are having a nebby through one of my most recent delightful bookish acquaintances, Dr Victoria James, one of the most well travelled and well read people I have met in some time. Victoria and I bonded earlier in the year as we judged the Not The Booker Prize for the Guardian and have been messaging and emailing about the books we have been reading ever since. I am currently buttering her up to work on a bookish TV project together. I’m delighted, between flying here there and everywhere she has taken the time to share her shelves with us and so will stop waffling on and hand over to the lovely lady herself.

Firstly can you tell us a bit about yourself and where your love of books came from…

I’ve always wondered if the thing I’m very best at isn’t TV (I’m a television producer) or journalism (I was Tokyo Correspondent of New Statesman, and have written for many papers and magazines), or travelling (which I do often and well) – but reading. During my childhood, each night after bedtime my parents would check on me and pluck off my face the book I had fallen asleep reading. I’ve got four degrees in English, yet to this day feel as desolate on closing the last page of a wonderful book as I did when I first reached the end of the Narnia sequence, or ‘2001 A Space Odyssey’. I love my life, and I really love the way reading has given me thousands of lives in the pages of beloved books.

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

For years, I kept all my books, but because I live in a tiny place in London most of them were stored at my mum’s house. When she wanted to move, I did a comprehensive sort-through and took about half down to the local Oxfam shop. Every now and then my mum rings me up to tell me with great annoyance that Oxfam has sent her a running total of the cash raised from my books – it’s in the hundreds of pounds, now. My criteria for retaining/discarding books were simple: was a book (i) ever going to be read again, (ii) of emotional value, or (iii) a beautiful or rare volume? If not, down to Oxfam it went. I try to stick to the same policy now for acquisitions – books that don’t meet any of those criteria but which I want to read anyway I buy for my e-reader.

Do you organise your shelves in a certain way? For example do you have them in alphabetical order of author, or colour coded? Do you have different bookshelves for different books (for example, I have all my read books on one shelf, crime on another and my TBR on even more shelves) or systems of separating them/spreading them out? Do you cull your bookshelves ever?

I tend to group my books by ‘collections’. I studied English at uni and have loads of ‘classics’ – they are all on one bookcase, and modern fiction on another, both ordered alphabetically by author. I lived in Japan for years and have a great number of Japanese books: these are grouped together, then subdivided by fiction and nonfiction (and alphabetically within those). I’ve a smaller collection of books on nature, wildlife and ecology, which go together (alphabetically), and travel (alphabetical by destination, not author). My most recent small collection is of books about Vikings, as for the past 18 months I’ve been writing both a Viking-themed novel and a travel book. These shelves are a glorious mashup of fiction, poetry, sagas, histories, nonfiction, catalogues and picture books (and are not remotely alphabetical).

With the exception of the last, this probably makes me sound borderline-obsessive about my books. Perhaps I am – but the rest of my life is a joyous, freeform improvisation. When a sixth-former I volunteered at my local library, and as a graduate student I earned cash manning my college library desk, so my neat books could be simply the product of a scant few good habits, learned early!

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

As a child I never had pocket money, but my mother joined no fewer than four local libraries to keep me plentifully supplied with borrowed books. The first time I got to ‘buy’ a book myself was when I won the class prize at my new school (I’d got a scholarship to a private school, where they did posh stuff like prizegivings). I chose a beautiful hardback of ‘The Hobbit’. It was part of a series of six hardbacks, along with the three ‘Lord of the Rings’ books, ‘The Silmarillion’ and ‘Unfinished Tales’ and I asked my mother to buy the whole lot, as I was worried that particular edition would go out of print and I wouldn’t have a matching set. ‘But you’d have to win the form prize every year,’ my mother said. ‘Don’t worry,’ I replied, ‘I will’. And I did. And I still have those six lovely volumes today.

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Are there any guilty pleasures on your bookshelves you would be embarrassed people might see, or like me do you have a hidden shelf for those somewhere else in the house?

I adore gloriously lowbrow sensation fiction, and I have more books by Wilkie Collins than any other author apart from Yukio Mishima. I also love children’s fantasy fiction (such as Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, and the Wolf Brother books), and am an unrepentant, lifelong sci-fi fan. But I’m not embarrassed by a single book I own. What a terrible notion – that’s like asking if people hide their naughty children when visitors come round!

Which book on the shelves is your most prized, mine would be a collection of Conan Doyle stories my Great Uncle Derrick memorised and retold me on long walks and then gave me when I was older? Which books would you try and save if (heaven forbid) there was a fire?

This probably sounds heretical, but one part of me would be quite delighted if everything I owned went up in flames. I’ve always been bit of a believer in the principle of nonattachment to material things – books are the glaring exception to my attempt to lead a nonaccumulative life. I do have a few books that were given to me and inscribed by good friends, or bought at meaningful moment of my life, but the important things are the friends and the memories; I can always buy the books again.

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

My father seemed to spend years of my childhood reading James Clavell’s ‘Shogun’, while my mother bought Oswald Wynd’s ‘The Ginger Tree’ (about a Scottish woman in early 20th-century Japan) after it was adapted by the BBC in the 80s. I don’t have either on my shelves today, but I spent most of my 20s living in Tokyo, so I guess both books made their mark!

If you love a book but have borrowed the copy do you find you have to then buy the book and have it on your bookshelves or do you just buy every book you want to read?

I buy every book I want. It’s like a sickness, Simon. I’m sure you understand…

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

The latest added to my shelf is ‘The Gentle Author’s London Album’, a largely pictorial book about London life and recent history. It’s exquisitely produced, with golden endpapers – to handle it is to covet it. The latest added to my e-reader is Eleanor Catton’s ‘The Luminaries’. I know some people don’t much like e-readers, but they make me a better buyer of newly-released fiction when the alternative is a hefty hardback for which I have neither shelf-space or bag-space.

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

My Big Wish for my bookshelf in the future is (cough!) a copy of my own first novel: a stirring (cough!) tale of Greenland’s last Vikings, who are suddenly confronted with proof that their world – and their dreams – are much larger than they ever imagined. There’s just that small matter of finishing it (10,000 words to go) then securing an agent and publisher.

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

They can think what they like! But you wouldn’t need to be too perceptive to deduce the following: My reading tastes – omnivorous and insatiable. Me – an outdoorsy, well-travelled bookaholic with a thing for Japan, Vikings and spaceships.

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A huge thanks to Victoria for taking part in Other People’s Bookshelves. Don’t forgot if you would like to participate (and I would love you to – hint, hint, hint) in the Other People’s Book Shelves series then drop me an email to savidgereads@gmail.com with the subject Other People’s Bookshelves, thanks in advance. In the meantime… what do you think of Victoria’s responses and/or any of the books that she mentioned?

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