Tag Archives: You Wrote The Book!

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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Filed under Random Savidgeness

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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Filed under You Wrote The Book!

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