Tag Archives: You Wrote The Book!

Three Irish Books You Should All Read & Three Books I Want To

Today is St Patrick’s Day and I thought it would be a nice idea to share some Irish books that I have loved with you all. Initially I thought this was going to be easy, after all I am a huge fan of Irish books. Well, while in my head this is true I discovered (whilst researching for next week’s episode of The Readers) that I haven’t read as many Irish novels or authors as I thought I had. It is weird when our brains do this isn’t it? Anyway, I decided I would share three books by Irish authors I have loved and also address this unknown-until-now imbalance by sharing three books by Irish authors I really want to read. First up my top three favourites, links to full reviews in the titles…

A Girl Is A Half Formed Thing – Eimear McBride

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I found A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing a book that confused, then compelled and finally confronted me. Not just because of the subject matter but also because it made me rethink the way I read. The abstract sentences and initially rather confusing style start to form a very clear, if quite dark, picture. You just need to reset your brain and allow it to do the work, or working in a different way. This is of course the point of prose after all, it shouldn’t always be spelt out just so and I hugely admire (and thank) Eimear McBride for writing such an original and startling book which will reward intrepid readers out there greatly. Tip – read it out loud to yourself. I am very excited about seeing the play in two weeks with my pal, and colleague Jane, should be something quite special. You can hear Eimear talking about the book on You Wrote The Book here.

Brooklyn – Colm Toibin

I am not going to hold back I loved ‘Brooklyn’. I thought Toibin’s style of prose and narrative was simple and beautiful. I was totally and utterly engaged throughout the whole book. I liked and believed in all the characters and I loved the subtle simple plot. In fact ‘subtle and simple’ are possibly the perfect two words to sum this book up for me. Yet at the same time it’s quite an epic novel and one that covers a huge amount in fewer than 250 pages. With characters, plot and backdrops like this I would be amazed if you could fail to love this book. Sadly I have yet to get Colm Toibin on You Wrote The Book, but one day, one day. I should also add I absolutely LOVED the film too, which is unusual for me, it was one of my movies of 2015.

The Good Son – Paul McVeigh

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Whilst many novels of the Troubles would make them the main focus and give you them in all their rawest and most shocking detail, I think McVeigh gives you something far more clever and intricate. A young lad growing up at the time Mickey does would, as Mickey is, be used to it and so it is not the be all and end all of his thoughts. This of course leads us into a false sense of security so when things like the night time raids or the murder and bombing in the street happen it gives us all the more of a sense of shock, some of these parts of the novel are really harrowing reading. Yet often more striking are the random smaller moments in which we are reminded the streets the kids are playing in are territory of war, I found these truly chilling. I also found the novel incredibly hopeful, funny and is probably the book I would recommend to anyone wanting to dip their toe in Irish waters fiction wise if they have not already. You can hear Paul talking about the book on You Wrote The Book here.

And now onto the three Irish books which I am most looking forward to, shamefully I have stolen their blurbs from Waterstones (who as I now blog for I am sure won’t mind, as they nicked them off the backs of the books anyway. They are…

The Little Red Chairs – Edna O’Brien

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When a wanted war criminal from the Balkans, masquerading as a faith healer, settles in a small west coast Irish village, the community are in thrall. One woman, Fidelma McBride, falls under his spell and in this astonishing novel, Edna O’Brien charts the consequences of that fatal attraction. The Little Red Chairs is a story about love, the artifice of evil, and the terrible necessity of accountability in our shattered, damaged world. A narrative which dares to travel deep into the darkness has produced a book of enormous emotional intelligence and courage. Written with a fierce lyricism and sensibility, The Little Red Chairs dares to suggest there is a way back to redemption and hope when great evil is done.

Beatlebone – Kevin Barry

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He will spend three days alone on his island. That is all that he asks …John is so many miles from love now and home. This is the story of his strangest trip. John owns a tiny island off the west coast of Ireland. Maybe it is there that he can at last outrun the shadows of his past. The tale of a wild journey into the world and a wild journey within, Beatlebone is a mystery box of a novel. It’s a portrait of an artist at a time of creative strife. It is most of all a sad and beautiful comedy from one of the most gifted stylists now at work.

Spill Simmer Falter Wither – Sara Baume

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You find me on a Tuesday, on my Tuesday trip to town. A note sellotaped to the inside of the jumble-shop window: Compassionate & Tolerant Owner. A person without pets & without children under four. A misfit man finds a misfit dog. Ray, aged fifty-seven, ‘too old for starting over, too young for giving up’, and one eye, a vicious little bugger, smaller than expected, a good ratter. Both are accustomed to being alone, unloved, outcast – but they quickly find in each other a strange companionship of sorts. As spring turns to summer, their relationship grows and intensifies, until a savage act forces them to abandon the precarious life they’d established, and take to the road. Spill Simmer Falter Wither is a wholly different kind of love story: a devastating portrait of loneliness, loss and friendship, and of the scars that are more than skin-deep.

So there are my picks both for you to read, if you haven’t, and me to read in the months ahead. If you have read any of these do please let me know your thoughts. I would also love to hear what your favourite Irish novels and/or novelists are that you would recommend I, or anyone reading this, give a whirl.

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Filed under Book Thoughts, Random Savidgeness

The Sunrise – Victoria Hislop

You may remember that I had a moment we all dread last year when my computer broke and lots and lots of files were lost/wiped. Imagine my joy when I was looking through my emails and I found some reviews which I thought were gone for good. What was I looking for was to see if I had Victoria Hislop’s email address as having been to Cyprus, where she set her latest novel The Sunrise, I wanted to email her about it. As it turned out I don’t have her email but I did find my review of The Sunrise sat in an email I must have sent to myself from my old work – how could that happen? I have never blogged at work. Anyway as it seemed Aphrodite had popped this review, which I wrote at the end of 2014, back into my life (well, onto my computer) I thought I would share it with you now.

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Headline, hardback, 2014, fiction, 352 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

It is the summer of 1972 and Savvas and Aphroditi Papacosta are living a life of luxury through the riches of tourism in the Cypriot city of Famagusta. Their hotel, The Sunrise, is one of the most popular destinations on the whole island with loyal staff and even more importantly loyal customers. The couple can have pretty much anything they want, and life seems perfect. Yes, you guessed it there is a ‘but’ coming. For behind the facade of partying, glamour and wealth that the tourists see, there are tensions between Green and Cyprus which initially seem to be taking place further afield, until a Greek coup starts and the island is torn in two as civil war starts with Famagusta becoming one of the central grounds.

As the holidaymakers reclined in the sun, sipped cocktails, swam or lost themselves in the latest thriller, Huseyin noticed that they were always orientated towards the sea. The sunbeds had to be laid in rows, pointing towards the rising sun. These foreigners did not want to look inland. Even Frau Bruchmeyer, who lived on the island now, saw only its beauty and the paradise created by the blue sky and sea.
Although during their short conversations she never forgot to ask after Huseyin’s mother, she seemed unaware of the knife edge on which the Cypriots were living.

Victoria Hislop does something very savvy with The Sunrise. Initially I was completely won over simply by the hotelier couples, though Aphroditi in particular who gets her hair done and wears a different gown each day and night and is Cyrus’ answer to Alexis Carrington. I was then bowled over by the tension that unravels and soon takes us from the high camp and glamour of the hotel and into the streets where we join two families, the Georgious and the Ozkans, who both have links to the hotel itself with members of the families working there.

As we follow these families we gain more of an insight into the history of Cyprus and where the tensions came from  as we discover they both tried to escape prejudice, ethnic violence and bubbling unrest elsewhere on the island. We then follow these two families, and the Papacosta’s, as they come to terms with the fact that they must pick sides, whether they like it or not, and how their decisions on staying or fleeing will affect them all as time goes on and the conflict gets worse. How far will these people go to survive and how do people change when they have no idea what the future holds?

Everything was quiet, but at the end of the street not far from home, he noticed something that shocked him even more than anything he had seen.
He put the sack down behind a gate and went up close. Ahead of him, there was a line of barbed wire. He was at the edge of the modern section of the city now, and as he peered in both directions down the moonlit street, he realised that the wire stretched as far as he could see. Famagusta had been fenced off. They were now living in a giant cage.

Naturally as things go on Hislop’s plots thicken, twist and take many a surprising turn whilst all the while giving us an insight to a period of history. It is this combination that makes The Sunrise  so enthralling to read. Sometimes if you know a novel is based on historical fact it can go one of two ways; either there is an element of the story falling flat for you because you know the outcome or there is added tension and atmosphere. As with her debut The Island (of which I am also a huge fan and read before my blogging days) Hislop’s latest novel is definitely in the latter category. Whether she describes the city at its most buzzing and opulent or at its most devastated you are completely there, the city fully created at either end of the spectrum.

Here characters are also marvellously crafted, you end up liking them whether you want to or not. Be they spoilt rich women, eccentric tourists, vagabonds, victims, profiteers you end up following their stories and narratives avidly whichever side of the conflict they are on. Hislop very carefully pitches her tone on neutral ground, so that regardless of who is wrong or right (bearing in mind that each official ‘side’, not necessarily the characters though, thinks they are right) we the reader get to see the situation from all sides. This is an incredibly difficult thing to do in any historical novel, set around conflict or not, especially without adding any hindsight to it. Hislop does it marvellously; her main focuses the story, the characters, the city and her readers with the facts firmly embedded in the fiction. The Sunrise is a perfect combination of an escapist, educational and enthralling read around a period in history you might not have a clue about. Highly recommended and a most timely reminder of how much I loved The Island and how I need to read all the Hislop’s I haven’t yet.

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If you would like to find out more about the book you can hear Victoria in conversation about it with myself on a previous episode of You Wrote The Book here. So those were my thoughts back in 2014 which were brought back to life when I arrived in Cyprus, especially once I discovered you can go on tour to Famagusta and see the ghost town pictured above. I was desperate to do it, alas we discovered that you actually don’t get to go into the city, just see it through a fence, so a four hour round trip seemed a little excessive to peer through the fences, maybe one day though? After reading the review I was quite cross I didn’t pack it in my bag to read while I was in Paphos. It has reminded me again I need to get back to more of Victoria Hislop’s books, have you read The Sunrise, The Island or any of her other novels, if so what did you think?

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Filed under Headline Review, Review, Victoria Hislop

Hear Read This is Back… And We Would Love You To Get Involved!

I hope all your turkey and trifle are settling down. I have to say I feel ridiculously full after two Christmas dinners and I have another coming on Wednesday with my mother. I may explode. Anyway, I thought I would pop a quick post up between reviews and my forthcoming best of 2015 lists to tell you the exciting news that the podcast Hear Read This is coming back very soon. First with an A Little Life special and then a new series in 2016. Hoorah.

Now if you are wondering what on earth I am talking about, firstly shame on you though you now had a backlog of podcast listening, let me explain. Many of you will know I host The Readers with Thomas, and before with Gavin, where we talk all sorts of book based banter every fortnight. Interspersed with that I also make the podcast You Wrote The Book where I interview an author (the latest one is with Michel Faber which the recording of was one of my highlights of the year, one of my fav authors – whose books I do not seem able to review – who was wonderful to spend time with) and chat about their books and the like for 25 minutes or so. On top of that once a month I have been known to join Rob and Kate of Adventures with Words along with Gavin to record Hear Read This; a podcast where four hosts discuss two books over one episode… well we used to.

We have had a break but have decided, after recording a very fun (for us anyway) Christmas special of Adventures with Words that we will be back in January with a bit of a twist for the return. Firstly we will only talk about one book a month; warts, spoilers and all. We shall still sing a books praise (A Month in the Country) or slate it from the roof tops (The Martian) or bicker and differ if the case demands it we will just go into it all in more detail. The other change is that each month we will each suggest a book and you get to vote for which one we read. Here are this months choices…

Which could possibly be my choice?

So which is it to be? Will it be some good old gothic with ghosts, apocalypses and more in Shirley Jackson’s The Sundial? A thrilling, dangerous and illicit love affair in Patricia Highsmith’s cult classic Carol? A collection of mythical beasts from all over the world in Gods, Memes and Monsters? Or will it be a world in where the Nazi’s won the war as envisioned by Philip K Dick with The Man in the Castle? You can choose by voting on the Hear Read This post here. And I would love, love, love you to vote – though I can’t tell you which one is my choice, though some of you may guess.

You have until the special A Little Life episode of Hear Read This with Rob and myself, where we come at the book from almost polar opposite opinions, which will go live soon. The winning title, along with how else you can be involved, will be announced on New Years Day, so you (and Rob, Kate, Gavin and I) can get spending your book vouchers asap and get reading! So which book is it to be?

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Filed under Hear... Read This, Podcasts

H is for Hawk – Helen Macdonald

As the end of 2015 beckons I start to think of all those ‘shoulda, woulda, coulda’ reads I was so sure, or insistent, that I would get to this year and haven’t and think ‘ooh I must read that at the beginning of next year’. I am not sure how realistic this will be as one of the books which I wanted to read the most in 2014 I only got around to in the second half of this year. That book is H is for Hawk which was one of the books of last year and became something of a sensation. I have to admit that I was slightly worried it wouldn’t live up to the praise from here there and everywhere, however it completely exceeded everything that I could imagine it would achieve.

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Vintage Books, 2014, hardback, memoir, 302 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

When Helen Macdonald learns that her father has died, her world naturally implodes. Grief can affect us in so many ways that it is never the same for any of us, yet in what seems a initially rather extreme reaction to her bereavement Helen sets out to get a hawk, Mabel, to train to distract herself from the world of people and emotional pain that surround her. Yet we learn this is not such a rash decision for Helen has grown up with a huge love of birds (particularly birds of prey) and as we read on we also discover how other people have used the keeping, taming and training of birds as ways to deal with the outside world, one being the author T.H White.

Now I have to admit if I had been sold this book as being about goshawk training, grief and T.H. White, an author who I have never read, I would probably have not have read it. In fact this might have been what stopped me from reading a proof when one arrived eons ago, well how stupid was I? So, if on the off chance you are one of the few people who haven’t yet read it you might feel the same, think again because this is a book that will affect you on so many levels you will be left slightly bamboozled as to why you don’t only read books about goshawk training, grief and T.H. White. Yes, I love it that much; it hooked me in, gripped me and then broke me along the way – something I have realised I really rather like in books.

I look. There it is. I feel it. The insistent pull to the heart that the hawk brings, that very old longing of mine to possess the hawk’s eye. To live the safe and solitary life; to look down on the world from a height and keep it there. To be the watcher; invulnerable, detached, complete. My eyes fill with water. Here I am, I think. And I do not think I am safe.

I found H is for Hawk fascinating and gripping in all of its three strands. Firstly I love birds and indeed whilst I didn’t have a bird of prey as a child the neighbours did (they owned Riber Castle Zoo and when they left they took the bald eagle with them) and I did have a pet duck called Rapunzel, not quite the Red Kite I would have dreamed of but she was amazing and probably actually a bit better as she was cuddly and flew to your feet, not your arm, when you called her. So to read about the world of falconry and taming birds of prey I found fascinating. I also love the way in which Helen writes about it, there is no textbook babble here just pure enthusiasm and passion for the art and the birds.

Without sounding like a weirdo (or more of one) I find books about other people’s grief incredibly cathartic. Not because I think ‘oh phew someone is having it worse than me’ (for the record that would be weird) but because having gone through grief it is a relief/help to hear that other people have gone through all the feelings you have, albeit in a different way, plus many you haven’t but more of all that you weren’t completely batshit crazy when you went through them. I didn’t go out and get a goshawk, though I pondered a pug, I did completely cut off the people I loved from my life and wake up and cry every day. Reading a raw, brave and unflattering account of grief like Helen’s, and indeed Cathy’s earlier this year, makes you feel less alone. This is important. This will also call out to anyone whether they have been bereaved or not because we all know heartbreak, we all know love, we all know loss.

Here’s a word. Bereavement. Or, Bereaved. Bereft. It’s from the Old English bereafian, meaning ‘to deprive of, take away, seize, rob’. Robbed. Seized. It happens to everyone. But you feel it alone. Shocking loss isn’t to be shared, no matter how hard you try.

I have to admit I didn’t think that the elements of T.H. White’s story would grip me though. And they bloody well did, without me having ever read any of his books which I now want to go and read. The story of a man who feels a complete outsider because of his sexuality and all that it stands for and alludes to is quite a heartbreaking one (have a hanky at the ready with this book). As we read on the story as White gets his bird becomes as gripping as the trials and tribulations with Helen and Mabel, yet with different outcomes, though I don’t want to give anything away.

Again here I felt like the book chimed with me again having myself gone through all that questioning, fear and misunderstanding of myself as I came to terms with my sexuality. Here Helen’s writing shows utter empathy, complete understanding and an ability to conjure and channel these feelings. This book just resonated more and more with me which is always quite a magical thing when it happens with a book. I should say that all this will grip any reader regardless of whether they have owned birds, been bereaved or have come to terms with sexuality.

Many people have said that Mabel is the star of H is for Hawk and while she is indeed an incredibly captivating character, she would not be so in the hands of any old author. It is Helen’s writing that makes her so and her writing is just wonderful. Mabel (and I apologise for this) flies off the page, as does every element of this book. I felt I was almost a ghost in the room watching the two of them as Helen describes her time taming and befriending, because it is a respectful friendship, Mabel as well as feeling the joy of watching Helen using Mabel as her view of the world, as she becomes a goshawk herself mentally, and then how Mabel’s view of humans and Helen herself helps her to comes to terms with things, even if she might not credit herself for it. Writing from the heart is not easy to come by, captivating and beautiful writing from the heart even less so, the latter is how Helen Macdonald writes and I thank her for sharing it, and her story, with us.

The feathers down her front are the colour of sunned newsprint, of tea-stained paper, and each is marked darkly towards its tip with a leaf-bladed spearhead, so from her throat to her feet she is patterned with a shower of falling raindrops. Her wings are the colour of stained oak, their covert feathers edged in the palest teak, barred flight-feathers folded quietly beneath. And there’s a strange grey tint to her that is felt, rather than seen, a kind of silvery light like a rainy sky reflected from the surface of a river. She looks new. Looks as if the world cannot touch her. As if everything that exists and is observed rolls off like drops of water from her oiled and close-packed feathers. And the more I sit with her, the more I marvel at how reptilian she is. The lucency of her pale, round eyes. The waxy yellow skin about her Bakerlite-black beak. The way she snakes her small head from side to side to focus on distant objects. Half the time she seems as alien as a snake, a thing hammered of metal and scales and glass.

I could enthuse even more, I will instead round off my thoughts. H is for Hawk is an incredibly special kind of read, which all the above culminates towards, simply put it is a generously open, honest and brutal yet beautiful book. Helen Macdonald takes us completely into her life and her world at a time when she was at her most broken and vulnerable and shares that with us in all its technicolour splendour of emotions. When I finished reading it I couldn’t help feeling that Helen’s father, Mabel (if birds could read) and T.H. White would have been both deeply honoured and immensely proud to live on forever in such a wonderful book. Yes, I too think that H is for Hawk is outstandingly good; one of everyone’s books in 2014 and certainly one of mine in 2015.

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She can draw ducks, there is no end to this woman’s talents!

If you would like to hear more about H is for Hawk from the authors mouth, you can listen to an episode of You Wrote The Book where Helen and I talk about the book, birds and much more in a cafe (so excuse some of the background noise) here. If you haven’t read the book already then I cannot recommend it enough, go and buy it and spend the Christmas holidays with it I beg you. If you have read H is for Hawk I would love your thoughts on it, as with any book we’ve both read.

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Filed under Books of 2015, Helen Macdonald, Review, Vintage Books

The Good Son – Paul McVeigh

When the Guardian called for votes for their Not The Booker nominations there were two books I simply had to put forward. One was the brilliant All Involved by Ryan Gattis (as someone had already nominated the equally brilliant A Little Life) and the other was a book with a character that I will never forget, Paul McVeigh’s debut novel The Good Son, which stars – there is no other word for it than stars – Mickey Donnelly.

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Salt Publishing, 2015, paperback, fiction, 244 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

If I told you that you should really read a book set during the Troubles in Ireland which throws in poverty, religion, sexuality and violence, both domestic and political, you would probably look at me in horror, which is why The Good Son is such a brilliant book. It has all of those elements in their unflinching rawness and yet with Mickey’s voice and cheeky sense of humour McVeigh gives us an image of an incredibly difficult and fractured time in some sort of rainbow technicolor whilst with a very black and white viewpoint. It is something I have not experienced before and I thought it was marvellous. It also gives us hope.

I was born the day the Troubles started.
‘Wasn’t I, Ma?’ says me.
‘It was you that started them, son,’ says she, and we all laugh, except Our Paddy. I put that down to his pimples and general ugliness. It must be hard to be happy with a face like that. I almost feel sorry for him. I spy a dirty, big love bite on his neck and store this ammunition to defend myself against future attacks.

And so we are straight into the narrative of Mickey Donnelly a young boy growing up in Belfast during a time of much turbulence as he is at that age, just before secondary school, when he is full of questions and hormones… oh and there are all the troubles on going in the background. That might sound throwaway yet to Mickey his main concerns are the fact that his family have no money, his Da is a violent drunk so his Ma and little sister Wee Maggie need protecting, everyone calls him gay and it looks like he won’t be going to the secondary school he dreamed of (which symbolises future escape) with his best friend.

 I think McVeign does many wonderful things with The Good Son and first and foremost of these is the character that he has created with Mickey. I am not a fan of child protagonists in fiction, I tend to find them precocious and a bit too clever (which tends to happen when you can see the authors viewpoint or purpose in their behaviour) for their own good. I adored Mickey. He is funny, rude, antagonistic, kind and hopeful. He is at once wiser than his years, due to some of his experiences at home and in the streets, whilst also often being naive. He thinks he knows everything about the world yet we the reader (as fully fledged adults, well I try) see everything around him in a different light and context. It is a real skill to get this just right and I think McVeigh does this effortlessly. His emotions are contagious too, when he is happy we are jubilant, when he is confused we are concerned, when he is defeated we are distraught.

Sorry, Mammy, I’m always going to be on my own until I get away to America.
‘Somewhere over the rainbow,
Way up high…’
Somewhere over the Atlantic away from our street and everybody in it.

McVeigh excels in the use of light and shade within his writing. As I mentioned with Mickey he uses his joy and his defeat to an incredibly emotive effect with Mickey. McVeigh does this in other ways too, humour being one of them. The Good Son can be wickedly funny which, when the bad things happen, also makes the darker moments all the more so. From one moment we are in a world of the musicals of Doris Day (any book with Doris Day gets a seal of approval from me, as it would have my Gran) to the bullying in the streets or worse the violence which broods in the background throughout.

This device I also found incredibly powerful. Whilst many novels of the Troubles would make them the main focus and give you them in all their rawest and most shocking detail, I think McVeigh gives you something far more clever and intricate. A young lad growing up at the time Mickey does would, as Mickey is, be used to it and so it is not the be all and end all of his thoughts. This of course leads us into a false sense of security so when things like the night time raids or the murder and bombing in the street happen it gives us all the more of a sense of shock, some of these parts of the novel are really harrowing reading. Yet often more striking are the random smaller moments in which we are reminded the streets the kids are playing in are territory of war, I found these truly chilling.

In the shop window, there’s an IRA poster. A man’s face. Eyes starin’ at you, frownin’. A bodyless hand covers his mouth. Loose Talk Costs Lives it says. You have to be careful all the time. Keep your mouth shut. I move and it’s like the eyes follow me, same as the 3D Jesus picture in Aunt Kathleen’s.

It is with this deft approach that McVeigh also looks at subjects such as religion and sexuality. Some authors might be rather heavy handed with their approach to these and whack you around the head with them at any given opportunity. McVeigh lets them bubble and simmer in the background, they become part of the story rather than the reason for it. This is a technique many, many authors should be taking on board. McVeigh also uses this restraint in his prose, no word is wasted, no sentence unplanned – and believe me he is a sucker for a brilliant final sentence in ever chapter that makes you constantly say ‘oh just one more chapter then’.

I could go on and on. I could talk about the wonderful relationship that Mickey has with his mother and sister, the way I felt his brother and father are almost visions of what Mickey’s life might be, how much I loved the sense of unsentimental hope thorough out. See I could go on and on. And I haven’t even hinted at the ending which will leave you lingering on it long after you have finished it. What a tease I am. What I shall say to round up is simply that McVeigh has created something incredibly special with this book and its protagonist.

If you would like to hear more about The Good Son then you can hear Paul McVeigh chatting with me on You Wrote The Book here. Who else has read The Good Son and did you love it, and Mickey, as much as I did?

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Filed under Books of 2015, Paul McVeigh, Review, Salt Publishing

A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara

Back in May I spent a bank holiday weekend in tears. That is because I spent the three day break (which I still don’t understand why we have several times a year, yet obviously embrace) reading A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. Though saying that you read a book like A Little Life I actually think does it a disservice as it is one of those all encompassing books that you live through. It is rare that a book as it ends leaves you feeling a somewhat changed person to the one who started it, that is what happened to me and is probably why this will be one of my all time reads.

Picador Books, 2015, hardback, fiction, 736 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

A Little Life is one of those books that slightly fool you from the start. As it opens it seems to be the tale of four men who become friends in college, we watch as they struggle (well three of them do) to make successful lives in New York; Willem as an actor, JB as a photographer, Malcolm as an architect and Jude as a lawyer.  Initially the novel traces how the four men meet, how their friendship develops and then how their lives and careers in the big smoke unfold. If you are thinking ‘oh right, it is another of those New York novels about successful men’ whilst rolling your eyes, you would be wrong as Yanagihara weaves in various question marks about all of these men and the darker parts of their personalities and pasts, particularly into the unknown and almost mysterious psyche of Jude who never gives anything away, not even snippets, of his youth.

His feelings for Jude were complicated. He loved him – that part was simple – and feared for him, and sometimes felt as much his older brother and protector as his friend. He knew that Jude would be and had been fine without him, but he sometimes saw things in Jude that disturbed him and made him feel both helpless and, paradoxically, more determined to help him (although Jude rarely asked for help of any kind.) They all loved Jude, and admired him, but he often felt that Jude had let him see a little more of him – just a little – than he had shown the others, and he was unsure what he was supposed to do with that knowledge.

It is Jude who fairly soon becomes the focus as the novel and it is here that A Little Life starts to take its, now infamous, darker turns. Without giving too much away, and I think it has been discussed quite a lot all over the shop, we look into his background, the horrendous abuse that he endured and the physical and mental scars it has left and which he is still dealing with now. How does someone cope with having been abandoned and then physically and sexually abused? How does someone make a success of their lives after that? How do they survive? These are some of the many questions that Yanagihara asks and some of the answers are not comfortable ones. For example in order to escape the almost constant pain, Jude often (to the horror of those who know about it; Willem, Jude’s physician Andy and his mentor Harold) uses the release of self harm. Yes it makes for disturbing reading, yet I have never understood the psychology behind it before as I have reading this.

Jude shrugged, and Willem felt his annoyance quicken into anger. Here Jude sat after what was, he could now admit, a terrifying night, acting as if nothing had happened, even as his bandage-wrapped hand lay uselessly on the table. He was about to speak when Jude put down the water glass he’d been using as a pastry cutter and looked at him. “I’m really sorry, Willem,” he said, so softly that Willem almost couldn’t hear him. He saw Willem looking at his hand and pulled it into his lap. “I should never -” He paused. “I’m sorry. Don’t be mad at me.”

Yet this is one of the things that Yanagihara seems to want to look at. Her writing, whilst admittedly (and she has said intentionally) making everything a little extreme, has an honesty about the things we like to talk about and also the things that we don’t which I found impressive and often heartbreaking because we have all felt or thought these things. “I’m lonely,” he says aloud, and the silence of the apartment absorbs the words like blood soaking into cotton. And there is so much Yanagihara looks at; pleasure vs. pain, success vs. failure, love vs. hate. She also looks at how society has expectations for us from birth; we should all be able to endure anything, we should all want success and riches, we should all have the best relationships possible of all kinds, we should all love sex, we should be grateful to be alive, we should all be survivors. But what if we don’t, are we failures, and are we not truly ‘human’ if we are not conventional in all ways? I could talk about the thoughts and questions A Little Life gave me for days and days.

If you are thinking that this sounds like the most miserable, upsetting, confronting and disturbing novel you are going to read, you would be wrong. Yes there are a lot of moments where it will leave you bereft and broken; however it is also a novel of incredible hope, especially in the testament of friendship and the power of love. I cried as many times through happiness as I did sadness, I laughed as much as I gasped or winced in horror. In some ways there is a fairy tale like quality to A Little Life both in its sense of timelessness, the way it has it’s goodies (Willem is now my idea of a contemporary Prince Charming if ever there was one) and baddies (Caleb and Brother Luke will make your skin crawl) and also in its believe in the goodness of many over the wickedness of some and the power/magic there is in love in all its forms.

“All I want,” he’d said to Jude one night, trying to explain the satisfaction that at that moment was burbling inside him, like water in a bright blue kettle, “is work I enjoy, and a place to live, and someone who loves me. See? Simple.”

Someone asked me the other day, after I had recommended that they read it, why on earth it had to be so long? Good question, why couldn’t Yanagihara have made it 500 or even 350 pages long instead of over 700? My answer is simply that you have to get completely immersed into these lives in order for the book to have the incredible emotive, happy and sad, effects that it does. By the end of the novel you will feel you have made friends and lost them, you will have felt like you have endured their happiness and their pain, you will feel you have lived a little of other people’s lives and been subconsciously made to reflect on your own.

I am going to urge everyone I know to read A Little Life. It is a novel that looks at love, friendship, loss, pleasure, pain, hope, survival, failure and success. It is a book about class, disability, sexuality and race. Overall it is a book about what it means to be a human. It’s amazing, it is also brutal. Like I said back at the beginning of this post, A Little Life is not just a book you read through, it is a book that you experience and live through. Without a doubt this will be my book of the year, if not my book of the decade, something about it (and Jude and Willem) will stay with me for many, many years to come. I am changed a little, something only the rarest and most moving and thought provoking books can do. Get it, read it, then talk to me about it.

If you would like to hear more about A Little Life from Hanya Yanagihara, you can hear her in conversation with me on the latest You Wrote The Book. If you have read A Little Life I would love to know and hear your thoughts on it and the affects it had on you, whatever they were. I think it’s clear this is a book I could talk about all day, this review took fifteen edits, I kid you not! I would also love to know if any of you have read Hanya’s debut The People in the Tree’s which I have and want to read right now and yet want to save, as it may be a while before we get the next Yanagihara novel.

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Filed under Books of 2015, Hanya Yanagihara, Picador Books, Review

Station Eleven – Emily St John Mandel

I first heard about Station Eleven when I was in a hotel room in Asheville, North Carolina. My lovely roomie, Michael Kindness of Books on the Nightstand, was reading it while we were at Booktopia. He was really enjoying it and it was fair to say that when he was seen with it in his company, or when it was heard he had it, there was almost a fever of anticipation and a buzz going through the many Booktopia attendees. I asked what it was about, as naturally Michael and I spent the entirety of our room sharing talking books, and was told it is about the start of the end of civilization and then the aftermath twenty years later. I think you could hear my eyes rolling around the whole of the U.S and I may have made some snarky comment along the lines of ‘oh, that’s not something that has been written about before is it?’ I came back to the UK and Station Eleven  was soon being talked about everywhere, before swiftly becoming many people’s (lots of whom I trust immensely) favourite books of 2014. After someone, who will remain nameless, but who bloody loved this book sooooo much dared me to read it on the promise of £50 if I didn’t like it I decided it was time. Well, I never got the £50 because I loved it and was of course furious I hadn’t stolen Michael’s proof off him when I had the chance.

Picador Books, paperback, 2015, fiction, 384 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Station Eleven opens, aptly, at the Elgin Theatre in Toronto where well-known (more famous in his youth) actor Arthur is taking on the lead role in Shakespeare’s King Lear, that is until midway through the show he collapses and dies from what initially appears to be a heart attack. Yet within hours not only is Toronto feeling the beginnings of what seems to be a pandemic flu, the whole world is following suit. Through the eyes of a seemingly unlinked group of people we watch as flu turns out to be a deadly virus and the end of the world is coming.

Yet Station Eleven is not simply an end of the world novel, in fact bar the initial millions of deaths (99.9% of humans have died, he says casually) in the first few days we are soon sent to the year Twenty when those who somehow survived, or were immune, to the virus are carrying on in a new strange world. Here Mandel focuses in more particularly with Kirsten, part of The Symphony, travelling around North America performing Shakespeare as they head through the wilderness we see both a future that is much simpler (no phones, no television, no electrics) yet where humans living at their most base start to want powers of other kinds. All I will say is ‘cults’ and we know how fascinating, if utterly bizarre, some of those can be.

There was much to love and admire in Station Eleven. Firstly I found the fact that Mandel chooses to write about the very beginnings and then skip to twenty years after the end of civilisation, really interesting. Many authors would have gone full throttle with the horror of what could happen as the humanity falls and then deals with everything’s slowly breaking down and running out. Mandel however, bar a few of the tiniest flashbacks, leaves that all to our imagination which of course can be much worse. I wondered if she felt, like I did when I rolled my eyes back in Asheville like a wally, that maybe this is ground that has almost been covered too much, isn’t how and if people survive after that all the more interesting? It turns out it is.

Before we head to that I do want to mention how brilliantly she does write about the pandemic as it sweeps across continents. It is utterly bloody terrifying as it could all happen so easily, especially if we think what happened with Ebola recently, all it takes is the virus to get on a few plans with a few people and off it spreads. I don’t suggest reading this book on a plane next to anyone with a cold. I thought this also had a real emotive weight on several occasions, with particular reference for those who die not long after including one leading-ish character far from their loved ones and indeed surrounded by strangers (who I won’t name, but I wept) as well as those people who we only see the merest glances of through survivor’s eyes.

“You told me to call you if there was ever a real epidemic?”
“I remember.”
“We’ve admitted over two hundred flu patients since this morning,” Hua said. “A hundred and sixty in the past three hours. Fifteen of them have died. The ER’s full of new cases. We’ve got beds parked in hallways. Health Canada’s about to make an announcement.” It wasn’t only exhaustion, Jeevan realised, Hua was afraid.
Jeevan pulled the bell cord and made his way to the rear door. He found himself glancing at the other passengers. The young woman with groceries, the man in the business suit playing a game on his cell phone, the elderly couple conversing quietly in Hindi. Had any of them come from the airport?  He was aware of all of them breathing around him.

In the year Twenty things are no less emotive or terrifying, just in a very different way. People who have survived the pandemic might die simply treading on a rusty nail as there is no treatment. People are also suffering as with no police/official control/government some lesser individuals see this as a way to form their own controls be it husbands and their behaviour to wives, criminals and murderers lingering just out of eye sight ready and waiting, or self appointed rulers ready to spread wisdom from the past they use old documents and twist the words of or simply make them up themselves. We watch the way someone’s nature, be it good or bad, can come to the fore.

It is interesting to read how the ripples of the past end up affecting the future in ways unseen. Throughout Station Eleven Mandel seems to use it to talk about many things. There is fame and why people become so obsessed with it, we have the fame (or the fading of it) for Arthur in the past, and the seeming need for infamy of ‘The Prophet’ in the future. We look at what truly lasts after the world is ravaged, yes there are aeroplanes and cars and all those sorts of things yet without power they become useless, what really become valuable are documents, words, trinkets, memories and history, even pop culture is celebrated for some of the positive attributes is has in a desolate future.

We stand it because we were younger than you were when everything ended, Kirsten thought, but not young enough to remember nothing at all. Because there isn’t much time left, because all the roofs are collapsing now and soon none of the old buildings will be safe. Because we are always looking for the former world, before all the traces of the former world are gone.

I really like books with layers and Station Eleven has those in bounds. On one level it is just a fast paced and fascinating look at the end of one civilisation and potential beginning of another. There is plague, there is murder, there are cults, there are loves lost and found. There’s also a lot going on under that; we are reminded how vapid celebrity culture can be and yet how obsessed we can become with the famous on our many devices, rather than getting to know a neighbour; the importance of words and culture; how important kindness is. I could go on, the power of all of these and more subtly resonates through the book. The most powerful thing of all though is hope, especially in other people and their choices to be good. That was the message I was left with as I left a world that seemed like the future yet reminded me to look away from all my screens and remember a simpler past – where books ruled.

If you would like to hear Emily St John Mandel talk more about Station Eleven then you can hear her chatting to me (I know, how lucky was I) here on this episode of You Wrote The Book. I would love to hear your thoughts on Station Eleven, a spectrum of which you can see here on Adventures with Words, Tomcat in the Redroom, Mookse and the Gripes and Lonesome Reader. I would also love to know which of Emily’s previous three books you have read (as I now have them all) and what you made of those?

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Filed under Emily St John Mandel, Picador Books, Review

A God in Every Stone – Kamila Shamsie

I mentioned a while ago that I had a small backlog of book reviews, which is fortunate as I can’t really talk to you about what I am reading at the moment. One book is Kamila Shamsie’s sixth novel A God in Every Stone which has just been shortlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, which I read last year. Why have I held of reviewing it until the shortlisted nudge? Well, A God in Every Stone is one of those books that is epic for its size in both its stories scope and indeed the themes that are held within. This is a readers dream, it is also blooming hard work for a reviewer, here goes…

Bloomsbury Books, hardback, 2014, fiction, 320 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

There are three strands within A God in Every Stone. The book opens with us in the Persian empire in the company of Scylax, an explorer in the fifth-century BCE, this is a very brief snippet before we are thrown into 1914 and the first of the two major strands, but don’t forget old Scylax, as we join Vivian Rose Spencer as she joins a Turkish archaeologist, Tahsin Bey, at a dig in Labraunda. Tahsin has been in her life for many years as a friend of her father and used to often tell her stories of Scylax when she was a young girl, inspiring her love of adventure, archaeology, history and the stories of the past and its people. As they work together an additional bond is built yet soon the First World War begins and are separated when Vivian is sent back to London to serve as a VAD.

The second main strand is that of two brothers living in Peshwar, Najeeb (who is an utter joy to read and instantly became my favourite character) and Qayyum. Qayyum has been a soldier for the British forces, and is returning after having been kept in Brighton to recover from some injuries. He returns to find his home city a changed place, having left the battle fields he returns to a city that seems to be on the very edge of unrest and potential catastrophe. How do these all interweave, well that would be telling I don’t want to spoil it for anyone so I am not going to tell you, you need to read the book.

If this all makes it sound like A God in Every Stone is rather confusing and disorientating, it honestly isn’t. This is a novel where characters, and most importantly really history, interweave and intertwine creating a wonderful tapestry of interconnecting lives. Now I worry I have made it sound twee and this book is anything but that; there is one huge twist in the novel that I didn’t see coming and hit me with an emotional wallop that actually made me gasp, as the book leads to its conclusion on The Street of Storytellers it depicts one of the biggest atrocities in Peshwar’s history, yet one that is little known or spoken of outside of the country.

The book is also teeming with themes one being history. Regular visitors will know that my mother is a classics teacher who would love to do archaeology and dragged me round Pompeii for a day when I was younger, so when I started reading about archaeological digs a bit of me went back to that day and winced. However the story of a woman in that setting in the male dominated pre-war era is a really interesting one and Vivian is quite the forward thinking woman who fights against stereotypes often through some very awkward situations with men who want to tame her, women who hate her – oh and the secret service wanting to hire her. It is little gems like that, based on fact, that give the book added dimensions and Shamsie is very good at giving every character some kind of additional story without it feeling forced or that she wants to bash you over the head with all the research she has done.

How can I explain how it feels to hold an ancient object and feel yourself linked to everyone through whose hand it passed. All these stories which happened where we live, on our piece of earth – how can you stay immune to them? Every day here in Taxila I dig up a new story. And, yes, I am grateful to the English for putting this spade in my hands and allowing me to know my own history. But to you history is something to be made, not studied, so how can you understand?

Shamsie takes a very interesting look at history in the novel. She looks at how we see events before something life changing occurs, how we see it during and how we think of it afterwards both instantly and in hindsight. All of the characters do this be it on a small or large scale. Shamsie also looks at how history is not actually something solely from the past, it is also something from the future because we are building it every second, every minute and indeed as we think our future actions through.

I know the stories of men from twenty-five hundred years ago, but I’ll never know what happens to you.

Another large theme in A God in Every Stone is the importance of story; how stories become history, how history becomes a story. She also looks at the power of stories and storytelling, be they the ones we tell others, the ones we tell ourselves and the ones that we will never know. In fact really you could say that this novel is the embodiment of how we can learn through stories, be they fictional or factual, and how we use those stories of the past to build the stories of the future.

I still don’t feel like I have really done A God in Every Stone justice, thought I felt the same after reading Burnt Shadows (you can see the review but bear in mind it was written long ago and made me wince a little as I read it) which is also a deceptive epic for its 300 pages too. It is just one of those tricky yet marvellous books that are very hard to write about if you haven’t read them and experienced them. Experienced is the right word actually because having come away from this novel I really felt I had lived, lost and loved alongside all the characters and what they went through. Suffice to say I think you should stop reading this and go and read Shamsie instead.

If you would like to find out more about A God in Every Stone, you can hear Kamila talking about it (far more eloquently than I can write about it) in conversation with me on You Wrote The Book here. Who else has read it and what were your thoughts?

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Filed under Bloomsbury Publishing, Kamila Shamsie, Review, Women's Prize for Fiction

The Bees – Laline Paull

For someone who always bangs on about how much they dislike horses in fiction, as I am so suspicious of them in real life, you might think I am not a lover of nature. Actually I am a bit of a nature geek, I will lose the tiniest bit of street cred I have left now by saying I used to be a bird watcher or ‘twitcher’ (we won’t mention the stamp collecting, oops) and any television show with David Attenborough I have to record and will then watch enraptured. It is my fascination with nature that led to a small obsession over the New Year that I simply had to read Laline Paull’s debut The Bees a tale about a hive of bees. Even the fact that these bees talk (and we all know that I am deeply distrustful of talking animals in general) didn’t put me off. I did wonder if it might be a little Disney like yet as I discovered it couldn’t be further on the opposite end of the spectrum, The Bees is a gripping and often chilling literary thriller – make no mistake.

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4th Estate Books, paperback, 2015, fiction, 400 pages, bought by myself as my first treat of the year

The cell squeezed her and the air was hot and fetid. All the joints of her body burned from her frantic twisting against the walls, her head was pressed into her chest and her legs shot with cramp, but her struggles had worked – one wall felt weaker. She kicked out with all her strength and felt something crack and break. She forced and tore and bit until there was a jagged hole into fresher air beyond.
She dragged her body through and fell out onto the floor of an alien world. Static roared through her brain, thunderous vibration shook the ground and a thousand scents dazed her. All she could do was breathe until gradually the vibration and static subsided and the scent evaporated into air. Her rigid body unlocked and she calmed as knowledge filled her mind.
This was the Arrivals Hall and she was a worker.
Her kin was Flora and her number was 717.

And so Flora is born into the world of the hive and the hive mind. As a lowly worker Flora instinctively knows  from birth she only lives to do four things; accept, obey, serve and be prepared to sacrifice everything for her beloved holy mother, the Queen. But Flora is not like the other bees, something which one of the Sister Sage’s (the priestesses of the hive) notices from her birth, she is different. While mutant bees are usually destroyed by their own kind, Flora has talents others of her kin don’t (speech and the ability to act alone, worker bees naturally just collect and dispose of the dead until they are, well, dead) and so is removed from sanitation duty and is allowed to feed the Queen’s offspring, before becoming a forager out collecting pollen. However Flora is also different from all the bees in another way (which I won’t spoil for you) and soon Flora becomes both a threat to the hive and potentially its only hope of survival.

Laline Paull does so many brilliant things with this book it is frankly rather difficult to know where to begin. Firstly though let us start with Flora 717 who, after getting over the initial unusual narration from a talking bee, is a wonderful protagonist and the perfect antiheroine in a novel that i by its very nature one of totalitarian regime. She questions things, she questions everything, she answers back, she does things she shouldn’t and she’s blooming brave in the face of many dangers. She’s gutsy and we all like a feisty protagonist don’t we? She is also an outsider and so we have empathy for her, especially when things take a darker and more complex turn.

Paull also creates a dark, controlled and claustrophobic world where orders must just be obeyed and the constant threat of ‘The Kindness’ lies in the eyes of all the other bees working to one hive mind. These are not cute and cuddly bumble bee’s, these are honey bees which, pun intended, are not as sweet as they sound –  for example there is a massacre, which happens once a year,  that I found genuinely shocking. There is also the danger of the outside world as a constant threat to the hive. There are other insects (let’s just say that spider and wasps aren’t bees natural allies) as well as other mammalian intruders including humans ourselves. The latter, along with the chemical threats to a bee, also highlight how in many ways we are abusing and endangering bees, which the environment needs and how a decline in them could be catastrophic in the long term. It has certainly made me rethink the value of honey.

Then there is also the world of the hive and how it operates. For the bees it is normal and they know no different but as readers we naturally humanise it, meaning from the start of the novel we compare their world to a totalitarian regime rather than nature doing what it has to do. Paull knows this and uses it wisely to highlight the cause and effect of such a culture. She also brings much more into the analogy of humankind as bees, if you know what I mean, in terms of gender politics, class, monarchy, religion and being different. There are layers and layers and layers, it’s a brimming book.

I mentioned above that this is a gripping novel. There is the pace and directness of the prose which to me read like a thriller, each chapter leaves you wanting to read on be it that something had happened in the hive or indeed to Flora herself. You also want to read on because the life of the bee and the beehive is so utterly fascinating. Both during reading and since I finished reading I have been coming out with endless facts about bees that I learnt through the book to anyone who will listen and several who won’t. Did you know bees can sting other bees without dying? Did you know bees were actually related to wasps but flowers changed all that? Did you know that there is a special mating ritual with a princess bee and her suitors? I could go on.

All this came together to form an absolutely brilliant novel; if you haven’t guessed it by now I absolutely loved The Bees. It is one of those books that has, like a beehive, so many levels to it. You can read it as a fascinating nature book (Laline only embellishes a few facts here and there for fictional purposes, bees don’t live a year for example) with an insight into the world of the bee. You can read it as a literary novel about feminism, society and beliefs. You can read it as a thriller or a fantasy, almost sci-fi like, novel too. However it is you read it, do read it. I cannot praise it highly enough.

So there we go my instincts were right, it’s a corker. Maybe insects are my think as I have also read and loved Grasshopper Jungle recently another very different book for me. Anyway, I will be very surprised if The Bees doesn’t get a nod from those lovely folk at The Bailey’s Prize for Women’s Fiction and even more surprised if it isn’t in my top five books of the year in December. If you would like to hear more about The Bees then listen to the latest You Wrote the Book where you can find me in conversation with Laline. Who else has read The Bees and what did you make of it?

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Filed under 4th Estate Books, Books of 2015, Harper Collins, Laline Paull, Review

Die Again – Tess Gerritsen

I have broken with tradition and indeed broken one of my own rules. I like to read a series of books in order yet have made an exception by devouring the latest Tess Gerritsen novel, Die Again, before having read the two before it – I like to space out my favourite series in case they suddenly stop or take a while for the next one to come out. I must admit that I was slightly worried this might mean I may miss something along the way yet it proved that whilst a story runs through all the Rizzoli and Isles novels they all actually can stand alone and are all completely gripping…

Bantam Press, hardback, 2015, fiction, 330 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

In Die Again, the eleventh outing for Detective Jane Rizzoli and Dr Maura Isles, we are initially given two stories. Firstly we are miles away from the duo’s home of Boston and find ourselves on a safari trip in Botswana. Here a group of relative strangers, though they include a couple and two best friends, are out to have an adventure in the wilds camping amongst the animals. Things soon take a much darker turn as something or someone starts picking them off one by one. Back in Boston Jane Rizzoli is called to the home of Leon Gott where the owner, a well known hunter and taxidermist, has been horrifically killed rather like a predator might kill its prey in the wild. As Jane and Maura start working together, with some tension between them, it soon appears this might not be a singular incident for the killer. How are the two stories connected? You will have to read the book to find out of course!

I am a huge fan of this series and in Die Again Tess Gerritsen reminds me of why. First there is the way, which I think has become more prevalent and more cunning as the series has gone on, that she will set you up with two stories that couldn’t be less connected if they tried, then slowly drips us information (making us feel super clever, often before she throws in a twist to flummox us) that make the two tales connect. Never to the point where you could easily guess the killer though, which I think makes these novels all the cleverer.

She also finds some subject that oddly often I find fascinating too anyway; like mummies, cults etc (just to name two of my favourites so far) and looks at them in more depth finding out even more fascinating facts that you can regal to your partner/work colleagues/strangers on a train making you seem all the more intelligent. In Die Again the subject is big cats, leopards in particular, and who doesn’t love big cats?

She thought of the cat in her own home, and how it watched her as intensely as this cougar was doing now. The connection between felines and humans was more complex than between a mere predator and prey. A house cat might sit in your lap and eat from your hand, but it still had the instincts of a hunter.
As do we.

The other thing that, for me, sets Tess Gerritsen’s novels apart from many crime series, and also makes me so addicted to them, is the macabre. Now I am not a psycho but I find the human body fascinating, be it alive or be it dead. In Gerritsen’s novels a lot of what we learn about the murders is from the victims and their anatomies as Dr Maura Isles is a forensic pathologist. This might not be for everyone but I just find it genuinely and grimly fascinating (though my dream job is to be a forensic psychologist if I could afford to go to University – any mystery benefactors please do get in touch) and in this series there have been some amazing macabre moments (what looks like a hit and run but has too much of a splat impact/an Egyptian Mummy which has a much fresher body inside it than it should) and Die Again is no exception. Death is after all every person’s final story.

The nude man hung upside down, his ankles bound with orange nylon cord. Like a pig carcass hanging in a slaughterhouse, his abdomen had been sliced open, the cavity stripped of all organs. Both arms dangled free, and the hands would have almost touched the floor – if the hands had still been attached. If hunger had not forced Bruno the dog, and maybe the two cats as well, to start gnawing the flesh of their owner.

While all this horror, notably caused by humans, is played out there are some moments of light. There is the camaraderie between Jane and Maura, which can often be tested or get testy, and their often dark sense of humour, come on if you worked doing what they do you would need a laugh. Giving the novels that extra punch too are the stories of their lives. Jane now married with children and all that brings, Maura and her situation as a single woman… now with a cat, and both of their pasts which have moments of darkness that linger. I can’t speak for everyone but when I pick up a thriller I want something dark, creepy and chilling to escape into in the safety of my own home (even if I have to check under the bed and in the wardrobes before I go to sleep) and Tess Gerritsen does this every time without fail.

I thoroughly enjoyed Die Again and read it in just two sittings. Both the narratives in Boston and Botswana had me hooked, I felt clever when I connected them and then more than happy to be given a final twist I didn’t see coming at the end. I am now really, really keen to head back and read both The Silent Girl and Last To Die playing catch up with Rizzoli and Isles especially as I know there will be a twelfth novel coming in the not too distant future, long may they continue.

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In case you are wondering why I broke with tradition and read the latest book before the others, I was super duper lucky to meet Tess of a lunchtime last week to have a natter about Die Again and much more, some of which I recorded for You Wrote The Book so do have a listen. Who else out there is a big fan of the Rizzoli and Isles novels? Who has yet to read them? Which are your favourite crime series and why?

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Filed under Bantam Press, Books of 2015, Review, Rizzoli and Isles, Tess Gerritsen

The Year That Was & The Year That Will Be

I was asked just the other day, by Gavin as he returned for The Readers briefly, how my reading year had been in 2014? It was something I had been thinking about but had thought I might leave to one side, but then I thought sod it I will talk about it anyway as we d tend to have a bit of a think as one year ends and another year starts don’t we?

In no way was my reading year a bad one. I read some absolute corkers, as I shared with you the other day. I even read a book that will probably become one of my all time favourites. Yet I would say it was a year where I was slow cooked over a long period of time rather than completely set afire by in a great flambé. Do you know what I mean or have I been spending too much time with a chef?

You see in terms of reading, not to say anything against all the books that I read last year, I felt it was slightly mono and that maybe it all got a bit too obvious or something. Planned reading might have been part of the problem; with Hear Read This and You Wrote The Book plus two book clubs in the flesh I have been planning what I read rather than just by whim. I am working on this. That said, You Wrote The Book is one of the many things that shows where the highlights in my year and books were and that was going out and meeting lots of lovely booky people. I was thrilled to chat with so many authors over Skype, yet to sit in a room with Rose Tremain and interview her for 30 minutes and then sit and gossip for another 30 mins was AMAZING. Yet the three complete highlight moments (Rose was a firm number 4) of my booky year for me were these, which all focus around the relationships/friendships I have made through books…

  1. Getting to Meet Ann & Michael from Books on the Nightstand/Booktopia Asheville

Ann Simon and Michael

The day before I flew off to have my American Adventure (which consisted of Booktopia, a trip to Washington for a mini break and NYC for all sorts of stuff) one of my friends asked ‘Do you not think it’s weird that you are flying thousands of miles away to share a room with someone you know through their podcasts and some emails?’ My answer was instantly ‘No.’ And I was right, spending so much time with Ann and Michael (who was the best roomie you could ask for), whose podcast, Books on the Nightstand, I have listened to for years was an utter joy, the bonus on the fantastical booky baked cake was I also got to meet lots of other amazing readers who attended Booktopia too. I had always dreamed of going to Booktopia but hadn’t thought it would be possible, then it was! Surreal and brilliant. Oh and then there was hosting an event with Anthony Marra whose book I was obsessed with last year.

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Imagine a whole weekend of readers, podcasts hosts and authors all meeting together and spending the weekend discussing books and reading and just having a lovely laugh filled time… that is Booktopia. If only there were four podcasts hosts in the UK who did something like that here…

  1. Recording The Readers In Reality aka Spending Time with Thomas of My Porch

simontom

Thomas and I have been commenting, well we used to, on each others blogs for years. Weirdly every time he came over to the UK I wasn’t in London, it wasn’t intentional I promise. Then we became podcast cohosts. So when I decided to go to the USA a stay at his (with the lovely John and Lucy) was a no brainer. We had the most wonderful few days ever. We went round all the Washington sites, we wanted round book shops buying lots of books, we laughed as we went and when we lounged by the pool. Recording the podcast live sort of became an afterthought. Thomas is like my big booky brother, and I mean that in THE nicest of ways.

  1. The Green Carnation Prize Announcement Party at Foyles

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This is probably the proudest booky moment I have had in quite some time. After managing to get the lovely folks at Foyles to partner in association with The Green Carnation Prize, which I cofounded a few years ago, we decided we would have a party when the winner announced. Initially this seemed light years away, initially I didn’t think I would have to give a speech in front of lots of publishers, authors, journalists and literary folk. Then suddenly I did and without sounding up my own bottom I was chuffed with myself, I couldn’t believe what I had quite accomplished for the love of books and for getting good books into peoples hands.

It is that point, the love of books and getting good books into peoples hands, which leads me onto this year but first I should discuss some of the highlights of my reading year before you think I didn’t love it. I liked it very much. 2014 might have been the year I blogged the least and read the least in quite some years but it was the year I rediscovered the short story and have had rather a love affair with it and also discovered Rose Tremain and of course these books and THAT book in particular. So for me that is a good reading year by any stretch of the imagination.

This year I have no blog or reading resolution or goal. Not a single one. My motto for the year is an anagram the Savidge family used a fair few moons ago when we made a cake for my great grandparents Doris and Arthur on one of their BIG wedding anniversaries with their names. It is ‘Sod it and Hurrar’. Excuse the spelling, there weren’t enough h’s, yet I think it captures the gist of what 2015 will be in all aspects of my life, including blogging and most importantly reading. I have set myself the lowest GoodReads challenge number ever, I have sworn off ‘official’ challenges and have said goodbye to freelance work (note – unless anyone wants me to judge a big book prize, ha or go on Radio 4 as thats a dream) in the book field for 12 months.

This year I just want to see where the books take me, be they new or old, fiction or not. Let’s see what happens.

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Just Richard Flanagan and I, Having a Chat…

Blimey where have the last two weeks gone? Last week seemed to be taken up with the Green Carnation Prize longlisting meetings and discussions (and all the admin that followed), plus a few author interviews, then I was off back home to the Peak District to stay with my mad aunty Caz and then this week I have been prepping for something else which I can’t talk about yet. This isn’t me trying to be mysterious and coy. I am just waiting to find out what is what. Anyway…

One of the interviews I recorded last week was with the lovely Richard Flanagan for You Wrote The Book, well he only went and won the Man Booker Prize this week! I thought being a bookish lot you might like a listen to it maybe, perhaps? If so the link is here.

I will be telling you all about The Narrow Road to the Deep North on Sunday but in the interim let me just say it is quite, quite amazing. I still can’t quite shake it. Kim of Reading Matters has been telling me to read him for ages and I have wanted to read this one in particular since I saw it discussed on The First Tuesday Book Club with Jennifer, Marieke, Jason and co. I can certainly see what all the talk has been for.

So have a listen if you fancy it. Just because I am nosey though, what are your thoughts on the Booker prize this year, both the lists and the new rules?

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Animals – Emma Jane Unsworth

What do we want to do when we grow up? When should we really grow up and become, erm, grown-ups and settle down? Who makes us choose either way and should we conform to any of this? Do our friends change as we do, can the best and truest of friendships last the test of time and these changes? Do we ever really know who we want? Emma Jane Unsworth’s second novel, Animals, looks at all these questions and gives a current, eye opening, honest and often very funny insight into women in their late twenties and early thirties.

Canongate Books, trade paperback, 2014, fiction, 256 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Laura and Tyler are best friends who live together and spend most of that time living together, apart from when they have to go to that pesky place called work (though Tyler doesn’t really need to unlike Laura who is while she writes her debut novelBacon), getting off their faces together – be it drink, drugs or preferably a bit of both – and having a rather wild time. However change is in the air. No, not since Tyler went and got a cat called Zuzu who hates Laura, since Laura got engaged and then worse still her fiancé, Jim, went and performed the cardinal sin of becoming a teetotaller. Now to add to the many hangovers, after the many crazy nights out, Laura has a headache hanging over her life as she must decide whether she really still wants to be an ‘any time and all night party girl’, or head for domesticity and listen to that ticking biological clock. Before any of you go making the mistake of thinking this sounds like a noughties Bridget Jones or chick-lit it is far from either, in fact Caitlin Moran has described it as ‘Withnail with girls’ as we are given a frank and no holds barred insight into what single, and engaged, ladies like to get up to before someone puts a ring on it.

You know how it is. Saturday afternoon. You wake up and you can’t move. I blinked and the floaters on my eyeballs shifted to reveal Tyler in her ratty old kimono over in the doorway. ‘Way I see it,’ she said, glass in one hand, lit cigarette in the other, ‘girls are tied to beds for two reasons: sex and exorcisms. So, which one was it with you?’

If we happen to be in, or over, our thirties then we all go through this stage at some point in our lives whatever gender or sexuality we are. It’s that eternal question we seem to be asked from a young age that we rebel against, the ‘what do you want to be when you’re a grown up?’ question that may possibly make us wince, which fortunately gets mistaken for a tight smile, or want to kill the person asking, covering those thoughts up with a false smile. Yet it is the question we are asked most as youths and then find ourselves annoyingly asking when we get older. Unsworth gives us three (Laura, Jim and Tyler) people’s reactions to that process with much insight and from all angles. Marvellous.

One of the other things that is marvellous is Unsworth’s writing. In Animals she manages to tread the thin lines of laugh out loud funny and incredibly dark. She also manages to do something quite a lot of writers fail at which is to make a book very funny without ever falling into the territory of a farce. These girls are having fun, even if they regret it the next morning sometimes, and that comes through in the writing. They are also firmly centred in reality, you have seen these girls on the streets of an evening, heard them laughing, seen them swaying drunkenly and sometimes making a tit, possibly literally, out of themselves.

She also, most importantly, writes some truly brilliant sentences such as… Oh. Give me a glance between two lovers on any day and I will show you a hundred heartbreaks and reconciliations, a thousand tallies and trump cards. Or… I felt it, then: a tremor down my spine; a cold spot at the back of the courtyard. A cat lying in the shade, flicking a caught bird with its claw over and over and over.

Unsworth also uses the darkly humorous to highlight some themes which also make the book all the more realistic and layered. I have mentioned the theme of friendship and the sense of needing to decide when to be a grown-up which we all face. With Laura and Tyler though she is also looking at how the modern world is for women and what the deal with feminism is right now. Is it to not have children and do what you like regardless of the labels of ‘crazy cat lady’ or ‘spinster’? Is it to be a wife and mother? Do you have to choose? Can you have it all? Does it matter either way? All big questions, all looked out without any feeling that Unsworth wanting to impart which is right or which is wrong, exploring all angles with two strong female leads, who may happen to be a tiny bit messed up, but aren’t we all?

Jeannie Johnson. Who’d once accidentally set her own pubes ablaze standing naked on a candlelit dinner table. She’d out spectacled us all. Now where is she? Spouting clichés, in stirrups.

Animals is a very clever book. It is an entertaining, occasionally frankly filthy, giggle and smirk inducing romp which also raises an eye to what life is like for women (though actually for all of us) as we grow up, try to become grown-ups (or try not to) and the choices and decisions we have to make as we evolve. It is a book which never takes itself too seriously, whilst being written brilliantly, yet by its very nature highlights some serious modern conundrums we all go through. As I said, clever, deftly done, wonderfully written and immensely readable.

If you want to know more about Animals you can hear Emma and I having a chat about the book (Emma even telling me off a bit) over a pint on the latest episode of You Wrote The Book here. Who else has read Animals and what did you make of it?

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Filed under Canongate Publishing, Emma Jane Unsworth, Review

The Days of Anna Madrigal – Armistead Maupin

I am not very good with goodbyes, nor am I very good with endings. There are all those mixed emotions; denial, upset, happy tears, sad tears – it is all a bit much really. I think it is a mixture of all these that has caused me to pause rather often as I have been putting my thoughts together about The Days of Anna Madrigal, Armistead Maupin’s final in the Tales of the City series which I have loved since I was in my teens.

Doubleday, hardback, 2014, fiction, 288 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Anna Madrigal is now 90-something and in the prime of old age, she has become something of a legend within the LGBT community, not only in her hometown of San Francisco where she is an institution, but all over the place. However Anna is filled with nostalgia and the events that happened when she was a young boy Andy, a boy who knew he was very different from the other boys and girls and who did something that Anna has been keeping secret for a very, very long time.

I am of course very delicately tip toeing around any spoilers because I really don’t want to give anything away to have those of you who love the series and haven’t read this one yet, or those are just discovering it (and should really go back to the start as then you have nine books to get through) because you have such joys ahead – you lucky things. What I can say is that Anna decides that she will go back and face her past and rectify, if she can, any of the wrongs that she may have caused in her past.

They shared a merry moment of bonding until Brian interrupted it. “Wait a minute,” he said to Anna. “You told me you chose your name for the anagram.” The old woman shook her head slowly. “I told you it was an anagram. There’s a big difference.” Brian’s face turned pouty. “So you were just blowing smoke up my ass.” Anna smiled dimly. “You may have been inhaling, dear, but I wasn’t blowing.”

This gives the book a wonderful sense of resolution and (if you have read it) to the whole series going full circle. Anna Magrigal has always been the heart, and in many ways the link that binds, the Tales of the City series and indeed the wonderful characters, Mouse, Mary Ann Singleton, Mona, Brian etc, together throughout. Wherever she is they end up being (Burning Man is involved in this novel) or somehow finding themselves linked to her in another fateful or coincidental way. At the same time she has always really been its biggest mystery and enigma in the series. Where did she come from? What happened that made her lose contact with her mother and the whore house in Winnemucca? Well we go back to the 1930’s and find out thanks to some wonderful (and vividly described and created) flashbacks which brings the hardship of anyone ‘different’ to the full force and in a way looks back at LGBT history and, of course, supplies us with a great story.

It is this mixture of a great stories with more serious issues lying in the background, sneaking into your brain, which is what I have always loved so much about Armistead Maupin’s writing. There’s levels and there’s bigger issues underlying to make you think, while the characters you love and the situations they find themselves in make it all the more real. The main theme for me in The Days of Anna Madrigal for me was ‘ageing’. Be you in your late twenties or thirties, your sixties or your nineties it is something we all think about, even if for the briefest of moments. Maupin looks at ageing and looks at its pitfalls, like your body failing you or not feeling able to keep up with the rest of the world or being at odds with it. I must point out it also celebrates it in many ways too. I often found it all incredibly touching.

If only he knew, though Michael. Sixty-two was a lot like twelve and hormonal. Teenagers rage against the end of childhood, old people against the end of everything. Instability is a permanent condition that adapts with the times.

The other themes of the book, which link to age in many ways, look at endings and goodbyes – I have already mentioned I am not very good at these. Goodbye’s don’t have to mean death, they can mean goodbye to friends you’ve moved on from, places you loved which maybe aren’t for you anymore, goodbye to guilt or the past. There is so much in any goodbye and again Maupin looks at this in a wonderful way which will move you, unless you happen to be dead inside in which case you don’t deserve the mixed tears of joy and sadness that might be ahead.

She regarded him benignly until she caught his gaze. “So this is the end of candlelight?” He hesitated. “Well… if you wanna put it that way.” “How would you have me put it?”

It was the sense of pleasant nostalgia that I was left with the most having closed The Days of Anna Madrigal knowing it was the end of the series. A nostalgia for all the joy that the characters and their tales have brought me, along with the sense of having gone full circle. After all more often than not, the ending of something is actually the beginning of something else, or the start of a new cycle, isn’t it? I guess I just have to start all over again don’t I and relive the memories and stories that I am most grateful and thankful Armistead Maupin has brought into many of our lives.

Actually, the end of the Tales of the City and Simon Savidge story, as I like to think of it, isn’t quite over yet. For one, I have just got my mother reading them and she loved the first. Secondly, I am giving it away on World Book Night, so I will be passing on the Tales that way too. So who else is a fan of the Tales of the City novels? Is anyone else gutted, even though we have all these to re-read, that the series has now come to an end? Oh and if you would like to hear Armistead talking more about the book, you can do so with me (who turned into a bit of a fan boy) here on You Wrote The Book. Are there any other series that are so endearing you could recommend to fill the void these will now leave?

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Filed under Armistead Maupin, Doubleday Publishers, Review, Transworld Publishing