Tag Archives: You Wrote The Book!

I’ve Been…

…A little bit busy this week and haven’t had a proper chance to catch up with you all about some lovely things that have been going on. So I thought I would do a mini catch up and tease you all with a few things that I will be telling you all about soon, as is my want. First up though this has been my birthday week (though actually the celebrations carry on next week and weekend too, I am totally milking it) and I had brilliant birthday, thank you for your birthday wishes, it involved lots of pottering, sorting and the lots of cake as made by The Beard…

Birthday shot

In case you are wondering it is a lemon meringue cheesecake, which is my favourite cake as it is all sorts of amazing. The Beard being a trained chef meant it was even more amazing. Anyway that was all lovely and we had lovely friends round for the evening including my lovely mate Emma who I made a pact to get a tattoo, with a literary twist. As the date, which we booked back in early February, drew nearer I was getting more and more nervous. However, I did it…

Tattoo Teaser

Yes that is a teasing shot as I will share it all with you next week! Teaser, in fact I am a triple teaser as today has been a bonkersly brilliant day in Manchester where I got to sit and have a coffee and a long chat with Emma Donoghue about Frog Music, which is very good, for next weeks episode of You Wrote The Book, she was brilliant and so lovely. I then met my aunty Alice, who you have all been recommending books for and she says thanks, for afternoon tea. Then I went and had a (two hour) wander around the refurbished Central Library…

Library Teaser

It is stunning and needs a special post so I will do that next week as I have a few reviews and posts to schedule before packing to go off to Harrogate tomorrow with three of my bestest mates to spend time mooching, eating cream cakes, drinking tea and being tourists. Cannot wait.

What have you all been up to? What have you been reading? What’s new?

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Filed under Random Savidgeness

Mrs. Hemingway – Naomi Wood

I am rather fascinated by authors, I can’t pretend I am not – more dead and classic authors than living ones, though with certain podcasts and events I do you know I am partial to a good chat with a fun living one. I digress. Interestingly I know that not every reader feels like this about authors, they find the books more fascinating, I however am firmly in the ‘let me know all about authors that you can’ camp. This even includes some authors who I haven’t read and one such author I have heard much about and yet not read a word of is Ernest Hemingway (sorry Gran, I know you loved him) so when I discovered lovely living author (who I have had virtual fig roll fights with on this very blog) Naomi Wood’s second novel was going to be about his wives I knew I would have to read it.

Picador Books, hardback, 2014, fiction, 336 pages, kindly sent by the publishers

Mrs. Hemingway is a fascinating fictional account of the lives of all four of Ernest Hemingway’s wives; Hadley, Fife (or Pauline), Martha and Mary told from their perspectives at various points of their marriage to Hemingway. From the poor and humble beginnings to the darker depressive days of his last years Naomi Wood gives us a novel where the wives become as fascinating, if not more so, than the man whom they all married. A man it seems who wanted to feel like he was truly loved, which in some ways as his fame grew, became all too easy as women threw themselves at him, even if they weren’t his wives or wives to be.

What a pull he has! What a magnetism! Women jump off balconies and follow him into wars. Women turn their eyes from an affair, because a marriage of three is better than a woman alone.

At the start of Mrs. Hemingway it is a marriage of almost three which we enter. Hadley and Ernest have been joined on their holiday by Hadley’s friend Pauline, or Fife as we come to know her, who we soon learn (from her sister no less, the shock and horror) has become Ernest’s mistress only it seems that the feelings run far more deeply than a mere infatuation or soon to be over indiscretion. We watch, feeling wholly for Hadley, as Hemingway’s first wife inadvertently draws her husband and his lover together whilst her intention is to do quite the opposite. What is marvellously done is what remains unsaid between all three, but particularity what remains unsaid between the two ‘friends’ as things continue. I was heartbroken with Hadley and thought Fife was an utter piece of work, yet strange how as I read on my opinions would change on each wife, and indeed each mistress.

Hadley eats alone at the round table where their books sit on the shelf above. Ernest’s first book of short stories, In Our Time, sits along Scott’s new novel, The Great Gatsby. She remembers one of Ernest’s stories. The images are still so cool and fresh they resurface as vividly as if they were her own memories – how the fish broke the surface of the lake and the sound of them landing was described as gunpowder hitting the water. Hadley could picture everything in that story: the boat out in the bay, the boyfriend and girlfriend trolling for trout, the old sawmill that was now a ruin. But then it came, the moment when the boyfriend tells the girlfriend how it isn’t fun anymore – none of it is fun he tells her, desperate; none of it is going to work. She wonders how much it was about them. The story is called “The End of Something” after all.

Mrs. Hemingway is fascinating for many reasons. Firstly because as I hinted above it is a book which will have you completely on the side of whichever wife you are reading, thinking you will hate the next one and quite possibly coming away from the book feeling admiration and heartbreak for them all for many different reasons. What is wonderful in Wood’s prose is that each wife is very different and also celebrates what was wonderful and unusual about them that made Ernest fall for them and want to marry them all (marriage being something he was vehement about). Each woman has flaws, each woman has certain feelings about Hemingway’s writing, in short each woman is equally fascinating and when you come to the end of one’s narrative you really hope they crop up in the next one.

It is also a fascinating book, not only because it is about all sorts of woman and all sorts of marriages which seems slightly obvious to highlight but is true, because it is a book that really looks at the different emotions that we all go through in our lives. Love, jealousy, rage, hate, happiness, sadness. It also looks at the different shades of love we feel for someone. You can be infatuated. You can be unsure but wooed. You can fall under someone’s spell. You can fall in so fast and out so fast. You can love to hate someone. All these emotions and feelings we have all been through are laid bare in one of the women at some point, or even a few of them at various points, and gives the book a real heightened emotive edge.

He’d be thinking, no doubt, about his life here in the twenties, when he was poorer and happier, a man only once married. His Paris life is a memory Ernest loves to slide over and over until the place is smooth and cool with his affections. Today he would surely be longing for the sawmill apartment and his lost Saint Hadley: a woman all the more exquisite for her generous retirement of the title Mrs. Hemingway.
A title Martha has come to hate.

What I found very admirable, and in its way deeply affecting, about Mrs. Hemingway was that Naomi Wood never seems to favour one wife over another. Nothing they do is judged unless by the wife who happens to be narrating her part of the tale. For example, when we first meet Fife we think ‘what a nasty bitch’, yet when we get to hear her side of the story we start to soften towards her and I could occasionally feel myself starting to bristle against the next wife who was waiting in the wings seemingly to usurp the prior, only for Wood’s account of their actions and motives somehow wins you over again.

Then of course there is the man himself, and in this case as clichéd as it sounds he is the ‘man of mystery’, and indeed the mystery and enigma, at the centre of this book. To each wife he is a different person. A man who seemingly felt he had so much he had to prove that even his successes were never quite good enough. A man who seemed to feel addicted to being loved and needed and admired. A man who didn’t seem to really know himself, or was trying to work himself and the world out through his writing. A fascinating, flawed and incredibly charismatic, dark and talented man.

I say that like I know the man, as I mentioned earlier I haven’t even read any of his fictional writing, I didn’t even know about his ‘infamous death’ (which isn’t really a spoiler as we all know he is dead) before I read Mrs. Hemingway so I came to it, to him and his wives from a very uninformed angle. Well, thanks to Naomi’s wonderful writing (which never shows the amount of research she must have done, my favourite kind of writing) I feel that I have lived through it with them now and I am also desperate to read some of his work.

Mrs. Hemingway is a beautiful novel which initially seems to be about a man of many wives and many times, yet that would sell it short. It is actually about four fascinating women and a man who happened to be lucky enough to have them in his life, no matter how little or how long it was. I highly recommend it whether you be a fan of Hemingway or not, it’s marvellous.

If you would like to hear Naomi talking more about the book, strangely with little old me, then have a listen to the latest episode of You Wrote the Book here. Who else has read the book and what did you think? If you are a Hemingway fan, where should I head? Which fictional accounts of an author or their lives have you read and would recommend?

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Filed under Books of 2014, Naomi Wood, Picador Books, Review

The Amber Fury – Natalie Haynes

I have always liked Natalie Haynes, when I have seen her on the telly being very funny or talking on the BBC’s Review Show (which should be on more regularly and back on the mainstream Beeb) I have always found her thoughts really insightful. Ok, maybe we fell out a bit over The Luminaries when she was judging the Man Booker last year, but I couldn’t have agreed more with what an amazing book The Song of Achilles was when it won the Orange Prize and she was a judge. I then got slightly jealous about how many book prizes she was judging but we moved on, it was fine. Note – she knew none of this until we met for an interview on You Wrote the Book just to clarify, this isn’t a review of a friend’s book; though she would be a great friend to have a cocktail or two and meal with and discussing putting the cultural world to rights. Anyway, I have really digressed, Natalie has her debut novel out and it might not be what you are expecting…

9781782392750

Corvus Books, hardback, 2014, fiction, 307 pages, kindly sent by the publishers

Alex Morris is trying to escape her life. The only way she feels she can do this, without turning to suicide which isn’t in her nature, she feels is to get as far away from her old life in London and escape to Edinburgh where hardly anyone knows her and there won’t be the constant reminders of the loss of her fiancé under dreadful, and initially mysterious, circumstances. Through her friend Robert Alex has landed a job teaching at The Unit, an initiative set up for ‘difficult kids’ expelled by any other school. Here she will teach Classics, yet what Alex doesn’t realise is that as she teaches these Greek tragedies a tragedy may be playing out right in front of her eyes.

It is very, very difficult to say too much more about the plot without giving anything away. With this being a psychological thriller (who else would, as I did, have assumed initially that this was going to be a comedy?) there are lots of plots and twists that get revealed along the way I wouldn’t want to give away. Yet what I found so brilliant about The Amber Fury is that Haynes manages to give very little away both in the past and in the present narratives until she really wants two, doubly clever when the book is also in two narratives.

The first thing they will ask me is how I met her. They already know how we met, of course. But that won’t be why they’re asking. It never is.

From the very first line of the novel Haynes has you in her web, yet you are also rather confused (without ever being so baffled you throw the book across the room in despair) as you realise that something awful has happened very recently in Alex’s past, after the awful way in which she lost her fiancé before fleeing to Edinburgh in the hope of escape, fat chance there Ms Morris. Slowly Alex tells us both her tales, meaning sometimes you are trying to work out which awful thing she is discussing, whilst also we have a diary of one of her pupils. I won’t say which one it is obviously, safe to say though that they become rather obsessed with Alex and the new knowledge she is bringing into their lives. On top of this Haynes also throws several twists, turns and a few red herrings which are frustratingly brilliant and never make you quite cross enough to throw the book across the room either.

Brilliant stuff, and all that would be quite enough to make a great thriller yet Haynes has also weaved in themes which give the book weight and added depths, some as dark as the mysteries at the heart of the book. She brings up the subject of obsession and what it could take to make someone become obsessed, or not take actually thinking about it, and where obsession can lead. It also looks at education, and how ‘difficult kids’ are perceived as well as why the classics are important and not a dead subject as many believe. It is also about grief.

In fact I would say grief and hurt are probably the two themes that underline The Amber Fury. The grief and pain of losing someone you love so much and build your world around in the case of Alex, but also the grief and hurt that can be caused by people telling you that you’re no good, that you are a waste in society and have no future. How do we react to those things as humans be it good or bad? Haynes looks at these two themes unflinchingly and with a raw realism which I found incredibly moving and disturbing to read. These rather raw and moving moments propel The Amber Fury and give it additional layers which create a real impact. As with The Night Guest which I mentioned earlier this week, we have a dark, atmospheric and twisty tale that thrills but also has real depths to it, these are the sort of marvellously written and thrilling novels I want many more of in the months and years to come.

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If you would like to hear more about the book (which I am sure you would) you can hear Natalie in conversation with me on the latest episode of You Wrote the Book here. Have any of you read any thrillers that had multiple layers (I have another review of another one coming soon actually) behind it and made it all the more brilliant for it? Do you think this is why thrillers and crime novels are becoming more and more popular, showing people from all walks of life and their hidden depths whilst also being a compelling book to read? Let me know, and of course let me know your thoughts once you have read the book too!

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Filed under Corvus Books, Natalie Haynes, Review

An Afternoon with Armistead…

More and more often I literally have to pinch myself at what a lucky young man (I nearly said boy but those days are long gone) I am, and all the joy that a love of books have brought me. Would the 15 year old me ever have thought that he would meet one of his literary idols sixteen years later? Never! Yet that is what happened yesterday when I got to see, and indeed meet, one of my bookish hero’s Armistead Maupin who’s Tales of the City series have been a comfort, a friend and a place I can escape to for all those many years.

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Armistead was in Liverpool to do an event at the Museum of Liverpool in conjuncture with the wonderful Homotopia which celebrates queer arts and culture – I must talk to them about bookish stuff. Homotopia has an amazing exhibition on April Ashley at the moment. April was one of the first people who underwent gender reassignment, rather like the fictional Anna Madrigal, and so Armistead coming to celebrate The Days of Anna Madrigal seemed perfection – and it was. The audience loved him and he made us laugh, get a bit emotional and most of all think.

Then, being a very lucky little so and so, once all the signings were done I got time to sit and chat and interview him all by myself. Well, by myself with his wonderful publicist (of several decades) Alison Barrow and of course The Beard who had made special Anna Madrigal themed cupcakes* (Anna loves her garden and a joint, the joint isn’t real but is filled with popping candy – fantabulous) which proved a wonderful talking point…

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And talk we did. I have to admit I went into utter fan boy momentum for a few minutes and then managed to regain some kind of cool. We chatted about Tales of the City, how much it means to people (how much it meant to me at 15 and now) and also some rather naughty bits and bobs. I won’t say anymore, you will have to wait for You Wrote the Book next week.

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I can say it was, after the nerves went, an utter joy. I wanted to pinch myself to check that it wasn’t some kind of crazy dream. However I have proof in the pictures and also in the, erm, proof. Yes that does say ‘a great interview’ – head explodes with joy!

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So all in all it was one of the most amazing afternoon’s ever, and ended with myself, Armistead and The Beard not only discussing Armistead writing something racy under a pseudonym, but also his possible one man tour. We have offered to be his back up dancers/singers/luggers or maybe even become a new boyband…

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…The thing is, what would we be called? Anyway, I thought I would share one of the biggest bookish highlights I have had yet. See, books are brilliant, so are blogs.

*Note not all authors I meet get specially made book themed cakes, though I have told The Beard that there could be a marvellous business in this!

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Filed under Armistead Maupin

The Folio Prize Shortlist 2013; What Do We All Think Then?

This afternoon the inaugural Folio Prize, which was the prize that the Folio ‘Academy’ started after the Man Booker was deemed too readable (is that a bad thing really?), unleashed its first ever shortlist and it’s a rather interesting bunch…

  • Red Doc – Anne Carson
  • Schroder – Amity Gaige
  • Last Friends – Jane Gardam
  • Benediction – Kent Haruf
  • The Flamethrowers – Rachel Kushner
  • A Girl is a Half Formed Thing – Eimear McBride
  • A Naked Singularity – Sergio De La Pava
  • Tenth of December – George Saunders

Now amazingly I had heard of all of them bar one, which is Red Doc by Anne Carson and is poetry so would be why it might be off my radar as I am not known for my poetry prowess. Amazingly I have also read one of them, A Girl is a Half Formed Thing is an incredible debut by Eimear McBride (who you can hear talking to me about it on You Wrote The Book) which is unlike any book I have ever read or am likely to read again. It’s a marvel.

The rest of the list I have all heard of. Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers has had a rather mixed response, people either saying it is the best thing ever or saying its completely overrated, I haven’t bothered with it shamefully because I don’t like either of the covers and think it has motorcycling in it which makes me inwardly groan. Maybe I should look into it more? Another book I was sent and didn’t read was Amity Gaige’s Schroder which I have no real reason for not reading, I think the cover (again, sorry) put me off as it looked like it might be a heart breaking tale of a child being abused or a father losing his daughter – no idea why the cover makes me think that but it does. Another to possibly find out more about?

Jane Gardam and George Saunders are two authors I have heard wonderful, wonderful things about and have been meaning to read so I might just get my mitts on those in the next few weeks. I also own two of the other books which I have kept to read at some point. A Naked Singularity I do have on my shelves and am rather fascinated by because no one would publish it for ages, then it did quite well self-published before a small press did and then it exploded. I have held off because it’s HUGE, like mammoth, so maybe a book to take on holiday. Kent Haruf is an author I have heard the most wonderful, wonderful, wonderful things about and have three of his books which make the trilogy that Benediction finished so I am going to dig out Plainsong and read that pronto. I am not sure I will read all three before the winner is announced, but then again I am not sure when that is from all the reports I have read… so maybe I will, ha!

So what are your thoughts on the Folio Prize Shortlist 2014? Do you think it knocks ‘readability’ on its head? Which ones have you read and what did you think? Which should I make sure I read? Any thoughts on who will win? I have fingers crossed for Eimear as I think everyone should read that book! Let me know your thoughts.

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Barracuda – Christos Tsiolkas

Often it can be that the best books are those which are so well written and immersive that even though you think you might not like the book for its subject matter you enjoy it regardless, sometimes even wanting to know all about the subject matter that might have at some point made you roll your eyes. Christos Tsiolkas’ fifth book Barracuda is one such book. I am not really interested in sports and the idea of a book about any sport even swimming, despite having an almost-niece who is training to future Olympic swimming standards, turns me off. Yet for all 500 plus pages of Barracuda I was completely hooked and compelled along, so much so I ended up reading it in three or four sittings.

Atlantic Books, 2014, trade paperback, 528 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

An initial description of Barracuda could simply be that it is a tale of an adolescent, Danny Kelly, who becomes one of the best swimmers in Australia (winning every race going and destined for the Sydney Olympics 2000) until suddenly he doesn’t. Once no longer the best so follows a very public fall from grace and the breakdown of Danny and who he believes he is which changes his life completely and Barracuda follows how he accepts this, or not as the case maybe. Failure isn’t an option until it becomes a reality. Yet Barracuda is so much more than that. It is a book about acceptance, pressure, class and I think at its heart belonging within your country, your family but most of all belonging within yourself.

He was kicking. Barracuda. Breathing in. Fierce. The water parted for him. Barracuda. Breathing out. Fast. The water shifted for him. He breathed in. Barracuda. The water obeyed him. Dangerous. He breathed out.

Tsiolkas does four pretty bloody marvellous things which make this such a compelling novel as we read on.  Firstly, he has created an incredibly interesting, complex and often unlikeable but very readable character in Danny Kelly and as importantly those around him and their relationships with him. Secondly he has constructed a book with a mystery at its heart, as we know early on that Danny has been to jail and left Australia for Scotland, which we are tantalised by and dreading and feel the need to work out the nature of. (Unlike several blogs/broadsheet reviews I am not going to give away this mystery/event.) This is added to by the structure of the book, which flits about between a narrative from the past and a narrative further in the future (pre-awful event and post-awful event if you will), and the visceral prose which are the third master stroke. The fourth is that this is also a novel exposes the, often rather ugly, underbelly of a country and the walks of life who inhabit it be they poor; like the Kelly’s, or rich; like the people who also inhabit Cunt’s College where Danny has been given a scholarship to for his gift. It is really rather epic in its scope, though as I mentioned the 500 pages rush by.

As I mentioned I found Danny incredibly fascinating and disturbing to read, yet as you read on you may not empathise with Danny but you do get an understanding of him and the fact really he is a lost person in society, almost literally a fish out of water. He comes from a working class immigrant background, yet he is thrown into the world of the ‘golden boys and girls’ and their social circle and families. Alienating himself from his friends but also his family and the sacrifices they have to make for his training. Along with all this he is also coming to terms with his sexuality as his competitive nature with Martin Taylor also becomes an obsession and something of a crush. I should here say I admired the fact that there is no big ‘coming out scene’ or anything so obvious, in fact it is never really commented on once he has a partner or even a factor then, it simply isn’t the be all and end all of Danny’s life it is just another aspect for him to sort out which I liked the reality of.

What this all creates is a lack of belonging, someone who really is lost in almost all aspects of their world. A scary place to be for anyone let alone someone going through adolescence where let’s face it no one really feels like they belong in their own body. Interestingly body obsession (too much fat, too much hair) starts to take over Danny, not only in himself but how he feels about those around him The only place Dan Kelly feels any sense of belonging is in the water, yet we understand that Danny’s belief is if you are the best, the fastest, the strongest you don’t need to belong, you are perfection and everyone should want to belong to you, bow down to you or in some cases be scared of you. If you don’t, watch out.

In the change-rooms, no one would look at him. But no one dared to mock him, no one dared say anything to him. He could just hear the murmurings behind him and around him, sensed the whispers first take form in Luke’s astonished and admiring stare. He could hear the words, Jesus, that Danny Kelly they whispered, That Danny Kelly. He’s a psycho.

With all these themes, questions and thoughts Barracuda is not the easiest of reads. I don’t mean that the writing is too lofty, literary or complex, some of the language is just rather confronting, with racial and homophobic slang throughout. The structure of the book, with its sense of mystery, also throws you occasionally as though it alternates between past and almost present there is no direct chronology; you have to put everything together at the end. Those factors along with the graphic nature of some of the scenes and unlikeable nature of the characters (which are often all too realistic) may also put some readers off but I am not sure those are the readers that Tsiolkas is after really. I think he wants to write a book which challenges readers and rewards them hugely once they have finished, contemplated and thought about it all.

 In fact books and their power and importance and how they should challenge us is also a theme in the book in a way. When Danny discovers literature, and a love of sorts, in prison he discovers Greene and ‘He understood the writer’s characters, sympathised with their weakness and cowardice, responded most to their refusal to find excuses for their failures.’ For me this is really what Christos Tsiolkas does with Barracuda. He takes a character who isn’t always likeable or reliable and who may be from the wrong side of the tracks, which most people like to hide away, and exposes them for the benefit of anyone who reads on, compellingly with warts and all. I admire Tsiolkas hugely for this novel and would highly recommend anyone who likes a read that provokes questions and disturbs – after all the best fiction should do that shouldn’t it and I think Barracuda is contemporary fiction at its finest.

For more insight into the book (if that review wasn’t long enough, ha, though I still don’t think I have done it justice) you can hear Christos and myself in conversation about Barracuda here. Who else has read it and what did you make of it? I am annoyed I didn’t review The Slap after I read it a few years ago, which other books of Tsiolkas’ would you recommend? What are your thoughts on confronting books and unlikeable, yet realistic, characters?

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Filed under Atlantic Books, Books of 2014, Christos Tsiolkas, Review

Bonkers – Jennifer Saunders

I don’t know about all of you but I am a much bigger fan of Boxing Day than Christmas Day, you still get all the food, chocolates and see relatives but it all feels calmer and less pressurised and you don’t have to worry about offending anyone if you go off into a corner and read a book. If you are anything like me the festive season is all about reading old favourites (some of the Armistead Maupin Tales of the City series), a good gripping crime or two (next read for me), and the celebrity memoir (I am just about to start Angelica Huston, or Jelly Who-who as I like to call her). One celebrity book that I can heartily recommend, and I do have rather a penchant for them on the sly, is Bonkers by Jennifer Saunders who I think gets it spot on.

Penguin Viking, 2013, hardback, autobiography, 292 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Unless you have been living in a cave or been on the moon since the 1980’s it is very unlikely you don’t know who Jennifer Saunders is. She was part of the Comic Strip before French and Saunders took over the telly box for many, many years. There has been Absolutely Fabulous (which The Beard is obsessed with, occasionally spending the day channelling Edina Monsoon – I know, I know), the Fairy Godmother in Shrek and my very favourite Jam & Jerusalem. Through all these we have come across a lot of Jennifer’s wonderful writing and yet she has always remained rather an enigma, this of course adds to the delight of wanting to read Bonkers. From the start you know you are going to enjoy what is to come.

I have been told that publishers these days like a particular type of memoir. They like a little bit of misery. They like a ‘mis mem’.
Well I am afraid I have had very little ‘mis’ in my life, and nowadays I have even less ‘mem’. So we can knock that one on the head.

Really Bonkers’ tagline gives it all away for you – ‘my life in laughs’ and as a reader you will spend many, many chapters just chortling away. Saunders seems to have chosen to write the funniest moments in her life as sketches that could be in a comedy show, or with subjects like cancer where she became ‘Brave Jen’ to the world she looks for the humour in even the darker parts of her life. She also knows what we ‘the reader’ really want to read about.

If you are standing in a bookshop and have accidentally picked me up (as it were), I can guess what you might be thinking. Oh no! Not another celebrity autobiog by someone cashing in on TV fame!
But let me tell you…
Yes! That is exactly what this is.
I realize they’re everywhere nowadays. Like a disease. But a lot of books out there are by babies. Biebers and Tulisas. They’ve only been awake a couple of years. Next we’ll have tiny foetuses writing books.
The thing that this one has going for it is that I am really quite old. I have also met quite a few celebs, which is always a good sales point. I was told to stuff it with celebs and royalty and a touch of sadness.

 So unlike some memoirs  that I can think of, where the writer spends at least a chapter on every audition they tried and failed at from the age of three until fame came a knocking, or how they spent seventy pages picking the perfect dress to wear for a party when they went to their first celeb bash etc, we get an insight into Jennifer’s childhood, some of her first trips away (one which has a link with Ernest Hemmingway and inspired Edina Monsoon), how she met Dawn French and how that initially didn’t go as we might expect, how she felt about making shows on her own, her dealing with fame, dealing with cancer, dealing with children getting older, all with some lovely celeby stories and lots and lots of giggling along the way.

I also felt I got to know her a little bit better, and as she has said herself these are the sort of stories you tell at dinner parties, they aren’t the most intimate of moments but stories you share with people you are getting to know. Interestingly her letters to Joanna ‘Jack’ Lumley, or faxes, and her thoughts on cancer and on the Spice Girls musical closing (not to compare the two) show her at her most natural and funny and honest and rather vulnerable, in both cases letting us in all the more.

So a big recommendation for Bonkers, which I think is the most suiting of titles, if you are a fan then you will have already got your mitts on a copy, or found it in your stocking a few days ago maybe? If not then when you next head to your local bookshop, which of course we all do with our book tokens (I got some woo-hoo) after Christmas, then you might want to add this to the ‘pile of joyous books to read over the festive period’ that I am sure we all have on our bedside tables at the moment.

If you want to hear more about the book, and have a few more giggles, then you can hear Jennifer and I having a pre-Christmas natter on the latest episode of You Wrote The Book here.

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Filed under Jennifer Saunders, Penguin Books, Review, Viking Books

When Savidge Reads Grilled Jennifer Saunders…

How is it Christmas Eve already? I hope you are all getting in the festive mood? I have already scheduled something fun and festive for tomorrow, as I am not going to be logging on the internet all day as a) I will be with loved ones b) I will most likely be drunk by about 10am – it is the only way to get through Christmas for me. But before I go all bah-humbug I thought today I would do a couple of posts of Christmas Eve cheer, the first is absolutely fabulous and the second rather spookier.

First up though is something very special as a few months ago I had the pleasure of spending an afternoon with Jennifer Saunders. This was to record the Christmas special of You Wrote The Book, but actually ended up with me spending a few hours in London’s Capital Building whilst Jennifer recorded various interviews and shows for the radio etc. and had a good old natter in between recordings and takes, before recording the episode which you can listen to here.

When Simon Met Jennifer

When Simon Met Jennifer

It has got to be one of the highlights of my year, if not one of the highlights of my life as I am a HUGE fan (not quite as much as The Beard who has never been so jealous, hopefully I didn’t go too fan boy) and Jennifer was absolutely bloody lovely darling. There was much laughing to be had, so I thought I would share it with you all if you have a spare fifteen minutes in the pre or post-Christmas – enjoy!

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Filed under Jennifer Saunders, Random Savidgeness, You Wrote The Book!

Mini Review Madness Part II; Ruiz Zafon, Kelly, Harris, & Le Guin

So as Christmas is now less than a week away (eek) it means that New Year is less than a fortnight away and in an attempt to try and have written about nearly all the books I have read this year I thought  would write a couple of catch up mini-review posts. I would love to give them all a full review but I am running out of days to do that and all of the books have been featured on one of the three podcasts I co-host or host so links for more on them are available below, so really you get even more out of these than you would a normal review, sort of…

Marina by Carlos Ruiz Zafon (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, hardback, 2013, YA fiction, 296 pages, kindly sent by the publisher)

I am a huge fan of The Shadow of the Wind and having read Marina, which was published in Spain before it but has only recently come out here in the UK, I am really keen to read it all over again (and indeed might next year) because all the best bits of Ruiz Zafon’s last YA novel made me think of it. Initially this is the story of Oscar and how he finds the mysterious Marina on one of his escapades from the school gates on the edges of Barcelona where he boards. However a mild mystery of a woman in black and an unmarked grave, which Marina instigates they try and find out about, leads them to a much darker mystery and takes them through and under the streets of Barcelona. Sounds good doesn’t it and often it is. There are some wonderful ‘monsters’ and dark chilling moments yet I found myself rather distant and often uninterested in the tale of Oscar and Marina and much more so in the one involving a dark love story from the past. Ideal if you love Ruiz Zafon, or if you have a younger reader who might not be ready for The Shadow of the Wind and so could do with something in the interim.

You can hear myself, Kate, Rob and Gavin discussing this in more detail on the third episode of Hear… Read This

The Burning Air by Erin Kelly (Hodder, paperback, 2013, fiction, 355 pages, kindly sent by the publisher)

Possibly one of the best psychological thrillers that I have read this year and one that I didn’t, and won’t write about in too much depth for the fear of spoiling a chilling tale with a nasty twist and sting (or two or three) in its tail. Opening with a letter telling of a deep family secret which we soon learn is written by a woman recently dead, Lydia, we then join her bereaved family as they meet for Bonfire Night, as is tradition, along with spreading Lydia’s ashes. Sophie is recovering from a huge shock to her marriage and also having recently had a baby, a baby who is soon abducted by Sophie’s brother’s new girlfriend Kerry. I won’t spoil the plot any further (though that happens quite quickly on) other than simply saying that if you want a book about deep seated revenge and the darkness it can create then you should read this, as should you if you like a good thriller as this is a marvellous one – surprises will lie in store and you will be gripped to the end.

You can hear Erin and myself in discussion about the book on You Wrote The Book here.

Peaches for Monsieur Le Cure by Joanne Harris (Black Swan, paperback, 2013, fiction, 541 pages, kindly sent by the publisher)

After having utterly adored Chocolat (I love the film but the book is so much better) earlier in the year, I was ready to read everything and anything by Joanne Harris. Instead of reading one of her thrillers, ghostly tales or even The Lollipop Shoes I decided to go with my gut (quite literally as they are my favourite fruit of them all) and read Peaches for Monsieur Le Cure which finds Vianne heading back to Lansquenet-sous-Tannes, eight years after she opened her sumptuous chocolate shop, despite herself. Here she finds quite a different town from the one she left and an old adversary who of all things may actually need her help. Once again Harris vividly captures a town that has fallen ill at ease and out of sync with itself and indeed the world around it. Themes of race and racism, and generally being different, lie at the heart of a book which from the outside seems sweet but has much more going on darkly below the surface. I enjoyed returning to Lansquenet-sous-Tannes and was spellbound (see what I did there) by a tale of Vianne once more.

You can hear myself and Joanne discussing the book on You Wrote the Book here.

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin (Orbit Books, 1969 (2009 edition), paperback, 273 pages, borrowed from the library)

Hmmm. This is a tricky one to talk about as in terms of plot I am not sure I really understood the full premise the whole way through as there is so much confusing jargon about why Genly Ai finds himself on the planet Winter where the inhabitants have no gender apart from when them go into heat, or kemmer, and could become male or female. Suffice to say he does end up there and becomes part of a political conundrum that almost verges on war though Winter has never seen a war as its inhabitants are not want to fight either. Thematically the book, once you have worked your way through it, is inspired. The way it discusses political issues, possibly based around the cold war, are relevant now as are the themes of gender and sexuality. I just ended up thinking that whilst it was probably ground breaking in its time, whilst as I said it is still relevant now it would probably be more potent as a short story. It needs to hit you over the head, not have you trudging through snow for page after page after page. I also struggled to find a single beautifully written paragraph. So overall I loved the themes and discussions it raised, sadly though I didn’t love the execution of it.

You can hear myself, Gavin, Rob and Kate talking about The Left hand of Darkness on the latest episode of Hear… Read This

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So that is my second and final mini-review madness of the week and indeed the year. Let me know if you have read any of these books, or any of these authors other works and what you thought of them? Also let me know your thoughts on what you think about mini-review posts like these, is it nice to get a quick glimpse of some other reads every now and again or do you prefer the longer (and they are getting longer) fuller reviews?

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Filed under Carlos Ruiz Zafon, Erin Kelly, Joanne Harris, Mini Reviews, Ursula Le Guin, You Wrote The Book!

Wrapping Up For The Year…

As each year comes to a close I have the same feeling of needing to wrap up (pun slightly intended) my reading, the blog and just my life in general. I have always been a fan of seeing every New Year as a new start. Out with the old and in with the new, sort of. The feeling has suddenly come upon me late this year as it only really hit home that we don’t have much of 2013 left earlier today, twice.

Firstly I had the pleasure of interviewing Christos Tsiolkas (who is bloody lovely) about his new novel Barracuda for You Wrote The Book. The book isn’t out in the UK till the beginning of January and the podcast will follow, but it suddenly made me realise 2014 wasn’t far away at all, despite the fact that in my head it is months away – a small wake up call. Unlike some bloggers (who I call show offs, ha, ha) I haven’t started reading books of 2014 unless they are to record podcasts or the like for next year – there are too many books from 2013 (and actually EVERY year before that but I won’t freak myself out) I still haven’t read yet!!

This was followed this afternoon by recording the penultimate episode of The Readers for 2014 and my last with Thomas (as Gavin is back for a special episode discussing the books to look out for in 2014 – there it is again – on the 31st) before the new year starts. We were discussing books we would like to get for Christmas and books we would like to give, the latter being some of our individual books of the year, another reminder it was nearly over. Then the second section of the show really hit the fact home as we discussed resolutions for 2014; what mine are shall remain a secret for a little while longer. But it really hit home and I had a mini panic.

Had I got my lists of Books of 2013 ready? No. Have I reviewed all the books that will make my list of books of the year? No. Have I worked out how many reviews I can fit in within the last few weeks of the year? No. (I have a weird habit of not liking to review books I read in the year before the following year, even if in fact it was read a few days ago. I also have a weird habit of not allowing myself to be mid-read as the New Year starts.)Have I read all the books that I meant to before I start afresh in 2014? No. And that was just the tip of the panic iceberg! I then realised I start a new job next Monday so how will I fit all this in, what with Christmas to and oh… oh… oh!

Several hours later I am much calmer. There are piles of all the books I haven’t reviewed yet and should, of which there are over twenty; some will be reviewed alone, some in bulk, some not reviewed at all – sorry about the latter I have either forgotten them or enjoyed them but don’t have enough thoughts to make a blog post on. Then I went through a selection of books I have on a secret hidden shelf, the unfinished books, and simply popped them on a pile to give away. After my time with The Luminaries I have decided I need to be tougher, better at letting go and just ditching something that isn’t working. Unreviews will have to start next year though as some of these have been half read for months and my thoughts on them are a little hazy and nonchalant – probably why I have never gone back to them.

So now I can get my house, well blog, in order for the New Year which will be a new start both in my reading and my blogging (which is really going to change next year – I have been mulling and plotting the blogosphere and my blog for some time now) and now the only question is which books do I think I want to spend the rest of the year with? I feel it is time to head for some old favourites or new comfort reads? Not quite time for any more books of 2014 just yet, they can wait – it is time for some simple self indulgence. What about all of you though? Do you feel you that the oncoming of a new year signifies a time to put your reading thoughts in order? An ending of one reading year and a start of another and all the experiences it will bring? Do you read more comfort reads and old favourites over the festive season?  Do you have any end of year reading traditions of ticks like I do?

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Filed under Book Thoughts, Random Savidgeness

A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing – Eimear McBride

I don’t often wonder if I have got too comfortable in my literary tastes as I tend to think that I am quite eclectic in my choices of genres within fiction, though I am always aware I could really try and read more non-fiction. However when I picked up Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing and began to read I discovered that whilst I might experiment in genre I am not really used to experimenting with prose, or indeed the many forms that a novel can take.

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Galley Beggar Press, 2013, paperback, fiction, 240 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

It is not often that as a reader we realistically open a book and are almost instantly thrown by the text. The thing is in reality, the truth of the matter and all that, experimental fiction/literature is much more than what many describe it now; a complex plot, a book of unlikeable narrators or the occasional book written in verse. A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing is, from the very start a truly experimental piece of literature and one that from the start may put many an avid reader off as it throws you out of sync with what you are used to, I would urge every reader to be a little more adventurous and read on…

For you. You’ll soon. You’ll give her name. In the stitches of her skim she’ll wear your say. Mammy me? Yes you. Bounce the bed, I’d say. I’d say that’s what you did. Then lay you down. They cut you round. Wait and hour and day.

If you are anything like me, the words ‘what the blooming heck is that all about?’ might just have escaped your lips. I couldn’t work out what on earth was being said yet as I read it over and over (I suggest trying about four or five times) there is something lyrical, poetic and fluid about it that I then did the same for the next paragraph, and the next, and the next and slowly the story formed for me of a girl living with her Catholic mother and sick brother, who has a tumour all through his brain like the roots of trees’ and growing up in Ireland in an unnamed place and unspecific time.

McBride places us firmly in her equally unnamed narrators head, this is less someone telling us a story and more a case of just getting the stream of conscious as it forms in her head from the age of two and then leading into her formative years where she learns she can protect her brother from the cruelty of the world quite literally with herself, but in sheltering him from the pain she contains double herself and as we read on the way in which she deals with this is through sex, and preferably sex with violence hiding pain with more pain. She rebels, to put it mildly, yet in a country so religious she also has to deal with the shame, guilt and sin she feels (particularly when she takes her uncle, not by blood, as a lover) and so the cycle and confusion continues. It is confronting writing and a confronting set of subjects, yet has a raw beauty to it.

I met a man. I met a man. I let him throw me round the bed. And smoked, me, spliffs and choked my neck until I said I was dead. I met a man who took me for long walks. Long ones in the country. I offer up. I offer up in the hedge. I met a man I met with her. She and me and his friend to bars at night and drink champagne and bought me chips at every teatime. I met a man with condoms in his pockets. Don’t use them. He loves children in his heart. No. I met a man who knew me once. Who saw me round when I was a child. Who said you’re a fine looking woman now. Who said come back marry me live on my farm. No. I met a man who was a priest I didn’t I did. Just as well as many another one would. I met a man. I met a man.

There is much that I found impressive about this novel. Whilst there is no time specifically set within the book the sense of place and the religious and family traditions of Ireland, and how oppressive that could be depending on your beliefs and family situation, comes through completely. Our narrator is wild and rebellious, initially I found myself thinking ‘good on you’ before soon thinking quite the opposite, she never becomes dislikeable even though she does some rather concerning and dark things. One of the main themes of the book for me was the nature of evil, what been evil really means and why people judge themselves evil. Much food for thought there, in fact throughout the book you are made to question yourself and how you judge or deem her actions, nature or nurture – or lack of the latter?

Having read it I can completely understand why it won the inaugural Goldsmith’s Prize, which celebrates ‘fiction at its most novel’ and I think you would be hard pushed to find another novel this year, or indeed in the last several, that pushes the conventional sense of prose we are all used to. As I said it took me some time to get into it, a few paragraphs were re-read, some read aloud, but once I was in the rhythm of it I had to read it in one big gulp – the author has herself since told me that she recommends people read it fast. You are sure to find yourself speeding up to the climactic ending though as the character seems to unwind and unravel further and further, faster and faster.

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.

For more on A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing you can hear myself and the author on the latest episode of You Wrote The Book.

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Filed under Books of 2013, Eimear McBride, Galley Beggar Press, Review

Books – Charlie Hill

I feel like this post today should be a public service announcement to anyone who loves books, the book industry and/or books about books. If you fit into any of those camps then, the aptly titled, Books by Charlie Hill is definitely a book for you as it satires the industry and the mediocrity which is rife in the amount of books that get published. Yet do not mistake that for it being a book for literary snobs, that is not what it is about at all, it is a look at what the role of a book is and why people started reading them in the first place.

Tindal Street Press, 2013, paperback, fiction, 192 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Richard Anger is a struggling writer, possibly as his short stories are rather dour and so experimental nobody can really read them, who as he loves book so much bought and now runs Back Street Books single handed. It is on his annual break from the shop on holiday, packing David Foster Wallace, that firstly he meets Lauren , a neurologist he instantly falls for, and then witnesses the first in a series of deaths caused by SNAPS (Spontaneous Neural Atrophy Syndrome) commenting on what a rubbish book the person who died was reading. When Lauren gets back to Birmingham she learns of more deaths from SNAPS and is intrigued and so looks Richard up again. Richard then puts two and two together realising that mediocre books are making people literally brain dead, and in all these cases the books that were being read were written by Gary Sayles – an author set to have the biggest hit of the year, an author who must be stopped.

Three days later review copies of The Grass is Greener began to arrive at newspaper offices, bookshops and the homes of bloggers. Within twelve hours the reviewers began to die.
A pointlessly detailed passage in Chapter 3, in which the hero of the piece argues with his wife during a Bank Holiday trip to IKEA, accounted for a part-time-critic-about-town on the Bristol Evening Star; Chapter 4’s barely credible description of a drunken seduction and one-night-stand did for a contributor to Beach Reads R Us!; and the Books Editor of the Glasgow Chronicle passed away after becoming cognitively becalmed during the course of a particularly laborious pun in Chapter 5.

Through Richard we see many aspects of the book industry roughly as it is now, though of course through a satirical gaze. As he struggles with rejections from publishers and literary magazines etc, we see how times are tough for the author and how the anti-snobs have almost created snobbery themselves in a different way. (Hill cleverly shows the other side of this with Gary Sayles who is the most up himself author, with minimal talent too, and one who clearly believes his own hype and promotion – I think we all know of those types don’t we?) Through Richard’s shop Back Street Books we get to see how the Independent’s are struggling against the internet and supermarkets and even indeed, dare we say it, the publishing industry itself. Oh and the broadsheets, reviewers and bloggers also get a look in as Richard has his own blog The Bilious Bibliophile – my hackles were ready to raise at this but like the rest of the book it made me laugh at the truth of it and indeed myself.

I should say here whilst Richard is clearly a snob and only wants high literature in his life, you can tell that Hill as the author is not. Hill clearly just loves books with a bit of a punch and it is with a love of books that is where Books comes from, indeed Lauren showing Richard that the best books can meet in the middle is a big part of the book. It’s main redemptive feature if you will – publishers take note! It is also this love of books that makes Hill create a satire here and not a farce.

Interestingly there is another strand to the book, which leads to its fantastical dénouement, which I haven’t mentioned. Pippa and Zeke are two artists hired by Gary to help promote The People’s Literature Tour (a brilliant send up) who are so ‘modern’ they are probably ‘retro post-modern’, yes those types. I didn’t warm to them, but I don’t think you are meant to, and I have to say I could see what Hill was doing but, apart from at the very end, I didn’t really see the need for them as I was more interested in everything else going on. In fact I would have liked more of characters like Muzz instead, who appeared a few times to much comical effect like when he swindles supermarkets bookshelves; another part of the industry nicely highlighted there to for what it does, or doesn’t, seem to stock.

‘It’s like this. The security guard in Waterstones in the city centre, he clocks me every time I go in. I can’t hardly move without him following me. But they’ve got this thing where they don’t mind exchanges. You know, providing the books in good nick they’ll swap it, even without a receipt. So I go to Sainsbury’s, help myself, get it to Waterstones and upgrade. So far I’ve managed to swap Jeffery Archer for Glenn Duncan, a Louise Bagshaw for a Beryl Bainbridge and Breaking Dawn for The Blind Assassin.’

Books is going to easily find itself in my books of the year. It is a brave book, even with its comic tones and edge, for an author to write. In part because it is almost an author speaking out against the industry to a certain point, which might not get you invited to all the big bookish parties (though as Hill is based outside London he won’t get invited anyway as I can vouch – ouch) and might make some people in some circles of the industry a little uncomfortable with the mirror it might hold up. Also being a book that is anti-mediocrity, the author needs to write a bloody good book to stand up to what it is highlighting itself. I can safely say that Hill exceeds that with this book, and indeed it’s his love of books that shines through and makes it such a successful and brilliant satire. If you love books then, erm, read Books – it is that simple.

For more on Books and a discussion about it and indeed books and the book industry, you can hear myself and Charlie Hill in conversation on the latest episode of You Wrote The Book.

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Filed under Books About Books, Books of 2013, Charlie Hill, Review, Tindal Street Press

Other People’s Bookshelves #20 – Gavin Pugh

So this week’s Other People’s Bookshelves is a little bit late but that is because I wanted to do something special for its 20th post in the series and have a special guest and delayed it to match that special guests birthday (21 again). Yes this week it is none other than my bookish beardy best mate the lovely, lovely Gavin C. Pugh. Really he doesn’t need an introduction, many of you will have followed his blog or seen him around Twitter (where he is like a bookish Lady Gaga in terms of followers) as @GavReads.

He describes himself as a social reader and has only recently admitted to collecting books. He was the original co-host of The Readers podcast with me, and will be back at some point, though now does more behind the scenes producing The Readers and You Wrote The Book where he makes me sound better and less inept – oh if only you all knew! He is back with a new podcast called Hear Read This! with Kate and Rob from Adventures with Words any myself too. He’s mainly known for loving SFF but he’ll delve into reality every now and again. He’s currently running NoCloaksAllowed.com and going to be reviewing a piece of shorter fiction a day for the next year. So wish him luck. Now let’s go and nosey through his shelves…

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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?

That’s a huge question. Before I moved to university I had 3 tall book cases 10 years ago and at the time I squeezed as many of those books as I could into my car to take with me. I couldn’t store them all so I had a big cull. Don’t worry too much it was things like Patricia Cornwell and James Patterson, so books that I wouldn’t reread. But I did get a feel for culling books. And I can be quite heartless if I need some space. That doesn’t mean that I have room for books. Right now, I’ve got six tall and wide book cases at the minute and a couple of piles keeping my desk up.

Now, this is a confession… I worked out recently that I had 483 or so unread books in the house so my read books have to be extra special to stay. I’m not sentimental though I sort of wish that I did keep the Anne McCaffery and Robert Rankin books from my teens. I did keep my Terry Pratchett books and those really do need two shelves now especially with the new Gollancz hardbacks coming out as I’ve definitely run out of room. I’ve culled books that I loved as if I’m not going to re-read it usually goes unless there is some other reason. I’ve started collecting certain books so I am now especially keeping books to make collections. You might see Adam Roberts for example and I bought the first edition of Stone as I read it from the library and really missed not having a copy. I buy and acquire more books faster than I can read them. I envy people’s restraint who can do one in one out.

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?

My shelves are currently quite organised. I’d love to make them alphabetical but I think I’d have to cull them by half so I could see them all rather than have half of them hidden by double spacing as they are now. Before I had a bit of a tidy up the Neal Asher books for example were all over the house they are now all together even if they can’t all be lined up. And that made a big difference to how I looked at my bookshelves. Before it was a case of anywhere that I could find a space! Now I try and keep them together through some sort of link, hover tenuous that is. Though that does mean that Jim Butcher and Peter F. Hamilton have got buried. I do like seeing them together. The yellow-spined SF Masterworks are together but only I know what I’ve read as I don’t keep read and unread separated. And it’s lovely to see The Readers Book Club books all on the shelf together.

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I have this big shelf of writing-related books that’s quite scary to look at – does one person need that many writing books I wonder? But I can’t bear to part with them. Actually, I’m ignoring the elephant in the room. As a reviewer and book-cheerleader I get a fair few review copies and they sometimes get shelf space while they wait but mostly new ones are on the floor in front of the shelves. But without reviewing I’d have a lot of books. I buy a lot of ebooks (sorry Simon) rather than physical copies though I’m swinging the other way and buying physical copies if there is a change I’d want them around to look at after I’ve read them. The other thing I do, like with the short stories, is to be able to pull those books off the shelves and pile them on my desk for reference and easy grabbing.
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What was the first book you ever bought with your own money and does it reside on your shelves now? 

You know I honestly can’t remember. I got a lot of books from the library when I learning what I liked as a reader. I’ve always been a reader but I didn’t gain traction until I was 16 and that was all down to The Witches Collection that Gollancz published collecting Terry Pratchett’s Equal Rites, Wyrd Sisters and Witches Abroad and that got me hooked and I devoured all the Discworld books and kept myself topped up as they game out every 6 months for a while. I don’t have it anymore but I do have the individual volumes.

The thing I’m really bad at is overbuying books. I’ve not read the Edmund Crispin’s Gervase Fen mysteries yet, but I like having them around. There are some books that I bought when I was first getting into books hidden behind others on the shelves. I’ve always gorged on books. One thing I don’t do is buy second hand books but there is a copy of Storm Constantine’s Stalking Tender Prey as I lost it in a move and couldn’t do without having it on the shelve as battered and smelly as it is.

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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?

You know, I’m a little embarrassed by my poetry collection. It’s very different from SFF that I’m known for reading. It’s probably that I don’t know many people to ‘geek-out’ with the same way I can do with you or with people on twitter. Though I think poetry is a powerful thing that I wish more people weren’t put off by in school.

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?

I did have a no-burn shelf but since reorganisation they are a bit scattered. I don’t really go for signed books. I have a few signed books but almost all of those are mementoes of meeting an author and that makes a story and a connection. I have signed books by a few of my heroes Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, Joe Hill, Mark Chadbourn, Storm Constantine, Neal Asher and Garth Nix for example. Some celeb books like Russell T. Davies, John Barrowman, and Barry Humphries. I have books signed by friends that I’d have to try and grab. The Terry Prachett hardcovers. And then there are some ARCS (advanced reading copies) that I’ve been lucky enough to acquire that are special to me like Horns by Joe Hill. Though a lot of books that I would grab because they are OOP have found a new life in ebook so I’d leave those until last like The Great Game by Dave Duncan and the Mark Chadbourn series – sorry Mark. Oh I almost forgot China Miéville – I’d grab those first as most are signed and he’s an amazing writer that I love seeing on the shelves.

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What is the first ‘grown up, and I dont mean in a ‘Fifty Shades of Greyway, that you remember on your parents shelves or at the library, you really wanted to read? Did you ever get around to it and are they on your shelves now?

I guess you’d say that was Stephen King and Dolores Claiborne. Stephen King for me is very hit and miss author. I’ve tried a good many of his books some like Gerald’s Game, which should be shocking didn’t grab me and some like The Stand I didn’t see why they were talking so long. I love Under the Dome but I don’t have a copy any more but Dolores Claiborne is the book that I’ve bought and given away about 5 times and it’s currently missing. I need to buy another copy soon as I like rereading it. It’s got no horror in it as such but tells the lives of two women as they grow old together.

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?

This is one reason that I’m really sad that libraries are disappearing as I’ve read some books when I was finding myself as a reader that are missing from the shelves like Martin Bauman by David Leavitt that I should have got around to re-buying but it’s not a book I want to read again mostly as it was such a powerful book the first time that I don’t think a second reading will live up to that. Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman I did end up buying though I thought I would reread it much earlier than I actually did and then I listened to it as an audiobook so that doesn’t really count as I still didn’t open the actual copy on the shelves. I guess that’s one reason why I’m ruthless at culling is that once I’ve read a book I have to be honest  if I’ll reread them and that I’m not just holding on to books in the vague hope they’ll be useful later. Saying that though now I’ve admitted I’m a collector I have a much better excuse for keeping more books.

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

One thing I love about twitter is that it’s so easy to call out and get good book recommendations. I did that recently and got back suggestions of Murial Spark The Driver’s Seat and Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckingridge & Myron. I can’t remember what the criteria was now but I tend to ask for older books that people love.

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Are there any books that you wish you had on your bookshelves that you dont currently?

I’ve already mentioned Martin Bauman. I’m a little sad that I gave away Un Lun Dun by China Miéville  as that’s a proper collection gap. Also when I was a student I didn’t by Making Money by Terry Pratchett and a couple of weeks ago I bought a first edition hardback to fill that gap. I can’t find my hardback of Thud!, another Pratchett, and I could swear I bought the hardback so I might have to get a first edition of that soon.

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

Having a wall of books in the living room, which is four of the bookcases, is an impressive sight. I think it shows a person that loves reading. To be honest I’m sure that they’d know a fraction of the authors that I have. They’d probably be more impressed by the soft toys that have been placed here and there amongst the shelves.

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A huge thanks to Gavin for taking part in Other People’s Bookshelves. Also, without sounding daft, a huge thanks to him for being a brilliant bookish bud, he’s ace.  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 Gav’s responses and/or any of the books/authors that he mentioned? Don’t forget to wish him a Happy **th Birthday too!

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Magda – Meike Ziervogel

Two of the biggest powers that books can have are to make us think outside our usual periphery or be a spring board to discovering more about subjects we think we know. Some books can do both, they are a rarity though. Magda, the debut novel from Meike Ziervogel, is one such book which gave me both a different outlook on something I thought I had made my mind up about and left me desperate to find out more when challenged. It is the sort of book where I simply want to write ‘you have to read this book’ and leave it at that so you all do, yet it is also one that is designed to be talked about and the questions it raises be discussed.

Salt Publishing, 2013, paperback, 113 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

I have to say I wasn’t sure what to expect from Magda before I read it. I was a little trepidatious, as I would imagine other readers may be, because I knew it was about Magda Goebbels and knowing of her relationship with the Nazi’s, Hitler and, of course, because of what she did to her children.

All these facts flashed through my head, but one thing that I believe strongly is that some books should confront us and make us face the darker aspects of life. After all, if we brush things under the carpet eternally how can we deal with things, change things and most importantly not let certain events repeat in the future. It is questions like that which a book like Magda asks; in this case can we understand a woman who is depicted as the ultimate monster, a Nazi and a child killer?

The first issue I think a book like Magda brings up the fact that there is a lot of stigma, for obvious reasons, towards anything that tries to humanise or explain someone who was a Nazi. There is that worry of ‘what will people think of me if I empathise with a character like that?’ Yet we never think about that when we enter the realms of a crime novel do we? I have read many a novel where I follow a psychopath as they kill at will before, hopefully, they caught. I have enjoyed them but this has never made me question if I am a psychopath. Because the character is completely fictional it is ok, if the character is real and known as a villain then it is a whole different matter. When I discussed Magda with Meike one of the things she said she would worry about having written it was that people might think her a Nazi, just as she did when she wrote of her Grandfather’s in the Guardian. That is how potent and raw the subject still is.

Whilst I don’t think a reader will ever empathise with Magda, I myself didn’t, I do think that you will begin to possibly understand why she might have become the person she did, especially when you come to the ‘speculative’ section which I thought was a brilliant piece of writing in terms of Magda’s possible psychology.  There is a question mark as to Magda’s motives behind joining the Nazi’s but some people joined them because they thought it would end the world problems as they saw them. I don’t agree with what they thought, and what they did it was horrific, yet I found Meike’s novella made me look at her and the Nazi movement from a very different aspect and I admired the bravery Meike has in trying to explain Magda’s story in as unbiased a way as possible. She is never quite a monster nor simply a woman doing what she thought was right, we get something in the middle. Meike fictionally tries to look at the reasoning behind her actions and creates a complex woman who was the product of her emotional and sometimes very difficult past and also the political climate of her country and generation.

Now I must talk about the prose, I do feel for Meike because before anyone (myself included) discusses the prose, characterisations etc invariably they have to defend the book for its subject matter, which isn’t just about the Nazi’s. Anyway, I loved the style in which Meike has written Magda. At 113 pages we don’t get her life story in full, or indeed in chronological order, we get snapshots of Magda’s life, the young girl in the convent, the background behind that, her first marriage and her rise in society leading to meeting Hitler and the events after that.

This is where Meike throws in another masterstroke. Magda is told through three different narratives, interestingly (I have just noticed now) none are from the point of view of Magda herself. We have Magda’s mother, Augusta, who tells of her childhood and how she first came into contact with the Nazi movement and who clearly had a very difficult relationship with her daughter. Plus Magda’s eldest daughter, Helga, who describes the time in the bunker in diary form – reminding me of Anne Frank and then making me think how these two girls found themselves in the most horrendous situations through no fault of their own, that really made me think and was incredibly emotional to read. These narratives highlight Meike’s other main theme in the book, mother and daughter relationships. For the rest of the book we have an omnipresent narrator so we never look at the world quite through Magda’s eyes which I found very interesting, it was as if Meike did need a certain amount of distance from her.

One of the loveliest moments of my life was when Magda came to me and said she wanted to train for domestic service rather than continue studying. I’d had my doubts, you see, that she’d ever be a respectable person, what with her head having been turned, twisted really, round and round and round like in a vice, so that it was perched there on her long thin neck, looking down on everybody, especially her own flesh and blood, her own mother. With those cold… those ice-cold eyes. But he put her back on the straight and narrow, didn’t he?

After initially reading Magda I was hugely impressed by it and thought it a very brave and often uncomfortable tale but one which needs to be so. Since then the book has lingered with me and my admiration of what Meike has done has grown and grown. It has made me ask myself a lot of questions about perceptions and how we look at and deal with history. It has also seen me go off and read other books, such as Laurent Binet’s HHhH (review coming soon), and documentaries and films, such as Downfall, which look at these horrendous events yet with more impartiality. A book which does that is one we should all be reading, so find a copy. It has been one of my reading experiences of the year.

If you would like to hear Meike Ziervogel in discussion with me about Magda then do head here. It is a fascinating discussion even if I say so myself – left me with even more to think about!

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