Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Savidge Dozen

Blimey so a reading year is over... a year of some good reading, some difficult reading, some readers block plus some dire reading and some frankly amazing reading. In fact there was so much amazing reading I changed my mind and didn’t do what I did last year and have a top ten, instead am doing as the delightful Dove Grey Reader had done and am doing my version of the Man Booker Dozen. So thirteen then… unlucky for some but not for these authors who should feel very lucky (I am being facetious) it was a really hard choice actually, really, really hard. I did stick to last years rule though of only one book per author. So here goes, in reverse order…

13. The Spare Room – Helen Garner
There was uproar in the blogosphere when this didn’t even make it onto the Man Booker Prize long list and after reading it I could see why. A thought provoking, sparse and raw novel about dealing with cancer this book was also filled with heart and emotion. Helen invites her friend Nicola to stay after she is diagnosed with terminal cancer, what follows is nights of cleaning beds, friendships pushed to breaking point and possibly one of the most honest fictional voices I heard this year.

12. The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society – Mary Ann Shaffer
I think if Nancy Mitford was still around (what is it with the Mitford’s being everywhere this year, more on them later) she would probably have been a massive fan of this novel. All at once this novel is sharply witty, comical, touching, observant and sad. Juliet Ashton became possibly my favourite character of the year as a writer struggling to find the next book in her and befriending the said society (it’s too long to write the title each time) and corresponding through letters with the many wonderful characters on a post occupied Guernsey. Superb!

11. The Reader – Bernhard Schlink
This book was simply unputdownable, and yes that is a word I have made up but should exist. When 15 year old Michael meets older woman Hannah when he falls ill he doesn’t know this is a relationship that will be in their lives forever. After becoming lovers one day Hannah vanishes only to reappear in Michael’s later life and to make him think about his life and the country he lives in totally differently. A new interesting, horrifying and thought provoking look at the Holocaust. Will make you think, a lot.

10. The Room of Lost Things – Stella Duffy
I honestly genuinely believe this is one of the most over looked gem books of the year, and not because I know the author and think she is fabulous. I would hope you’d know by now that I am not that sort of person. This book celebrates London and has some of the most fabulous characters in it. Be it from the story of Robert Sutton who is selling his laundrette (where everyone leaves their secrets in their pockets) after a lifetime of hard work to the homeless men who sleep under an archway on a old battered sofa the characters in this book are full of life and I secretly hoped for this to be the start of a series. A love letter in novel form by the author to South London!

9. When Will There Be Good News? – Kate Atkinson
My love for the writing of Kate Atkinson went stratospheric this year with the third so far in the Jackson Brodie ‘literary crime fiction’ series. Having also read its predecessor ‘One Good Turn’ this year I didn’t think her coincidence based complex plots could get any cleverer, I was wrong. This book is much darker than the previous two and grittier yet still in parts incredibly funny. It also of course had one of the characters of the year in it through Reggie the sixteen year old girl who saves Brodie life and yet brings an old flame and a mystery that needs solving into his life on top. It’s so difficult to explain this book, so simply put… buy it!

8. Mister Pip – Lloyd Jones
Ok so this book has been out a while but sometimes I get behind, I mean The Reader is eleven years old, so be kind. I ironically had no expectations of this book at all which sees the children of a small village on a tropical island receive a new teacher and a new book to study ‘Great Expectations’. The new teacher Pop Eye or Mr Watts takes on the class when no one else will due to war in the South Pacific. This reminded me slightly of Half Of A Yellow Sun for the graphicness of war which when you start reading the book you wouldn’t imagine you are going to have in the story ahead of you. Definitely my most shocking read of the year, amazingly written and celebratory of fiction and all it can inspire.

7. Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh
When Novel Insights and I decided to do this as one of our Rogue Book Group choices I wasn’t sure it would be my cup of tea. I was completely won over by Waugh’s stunning writing and possibly my favourite villain of the year in the form of Lady Marchmain. Charles Ryder reflects on returning to Brideshead during the war on his own history with the building and the Marchmain’s who owned it and their privileged life style in the post Second World War glory days. However Charles experience has a nasty sting in the tale that though he has tried to forget he simply cannot. A genuine classic.

6. The Boy in the Striped Pyjama’s –John Boyne
If there is anyone left who hasn’t seen the movie (which was almost as good as the book, a rarity) or who hasn’t read this book themselves I do not want to give a single bit of plot of this book away as if I had known what was coming I don’t think it would have worked in the same way. I will say that it tells of a young boy Bruno who is forced to move from his childhood home with his mother and sister to join their father for his work. The land they move to is in the middle of nowhere though eventually Bruno befriends another young boy through a fence. Through their innocent friendship Bruno is brought into a much darker world one that will change his life and his family’s lives forever.

5. Mudbound – Hillary Jordan
I admit that the title I found both intriguing and incredibly off putting, however a random purchase in Sainsbury’s (I know, I know) led to me reading possibly one of the most surprising and remarkable books of the year. Set in the Mississippi Delta in 1946 you are first lead to believe this is a novel about a resentful wife being made to live in the cotton farm of her nightmares she swiftly calls Mudbound. What Jordan manages to bring in to this incredible novel is stories of family breakdowns, affairs, war and racism. Not always comfortable reading, especially one sickening scene, this book absolutely blew me away. I cannot wait for Jordan’s second novel whenever it comes.

4. The Suspicions of Mr Whicher – Kate Summerscale
Now shock horror, Mr Savidge who never really liked to read non-fiction has two in his top ten. The first of which is Kate Summerscale’s simply wonderful, if crime can be wonderful, retelling of the events of ‘The Suspicions of Mr Whicher’ or ‘The Murder at Road Hill House’. Back in 1860 in the small town of Road in Wiltshire a horrific murder took place one which the local police simply couldn’t figure out so at a time when detectives were a new thing Scotland Yard sent Mr Whicher to investigate. The murder both provoked national hysteria and also inspired many authors such as Dickens, Wilkie Collins and Conan Doyle. Being a fan of crime fiction and of books this was a perfect read and made all the facts down to train timetables easy to digest until you find yourself detecting alongside.

3. To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee
I most people will know this book and I know it had been a book that I had wanted to read for a long time and so after sneakily buying myself and Novel Insights a 50p charity shop copy each it became a Rogue Book Group choice. Scout tells the tale of her town in the 1930’s Deep South of America. Her father Atticus (a wonderful character) is defending Tom Robinson of rape, Tom is black and in a time and town where racism is rife he finds himself and subsequently his family struggling with the town and struggling for justice. I loved it, even though until about 50 pages in it hadn’t gripped me suddenly I was hooked.

2. On Chesil Beach – Ian McEwan
In a year that has seen a lot of McEwan pass in front of my eyes, and has seen him become one f my favourite authors, it was this book in particular that wowed me of all of his I read. Set in the early sixties it is Edward and Florence’s wedding night. For uptight and inexperienced couple, through not speaking and misunderstood actions, this is the night that will change their lives forever and have devastating results. A superb look at how society has changed and how people have become more informed on life since, but also a sad and startling look at innocence, communication and what was expected of differing genders in those times, plus what was morally or socially correct. A small book with a lot of punch and bite. Oh, and its the second year that Mr McEwan has been in my top three books of the year!

1. The Mitford’s: Letters Between Six Sisters – Charlotte Mosley
What had initially led me to read this book was the idea of letters that spanned a huge amount of history. Having, until this book, only known of Deborah Cavendish (though not as a Mitford because of her name, but because I know Chatsworth well), Nancy Mitford (as an author) and Unity Mitford (as the supposed mother of Hitler’s child) to a small degree; I fell in love with all the sisters (possibly bar Diana, she didn’t have being crazy as an excuse to liking Hitler like Unity) and thought the amount of British history contained in one book was phenomenal. I also loved their play on language, thoughts on society, books and people. I defy anyone to read this and not be 100% in love with it and ready to start again once you have put it down. This book has unquestionably inspired me to read a lot more non fiction in 2009. Best book of 2008 by a clear mile, no offense to any others.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Should Have Reads 2008

So whilst putting the final touches to the Savidge Dozen (or my version of the best books of 2009 in my humble opinion) I have been going through the books I have read and been sent or bought and of course the ones that I haven’t managed to read. So I thought I would do my own top ten of books that I haven’t managed to read but will be showing their faces in the first few months of 2009. I wonder if any of them will be in the Should Have Reads 2009, what a depressing thought, swiftly moving on…

The Top Ten Should Have Reads 2008

1. The Secret Scripture – Sebastian BarryThe
2. Child 44 – Tom Rob Smith
3. Love In A Cold Climate – Nancy Mitford
4. Story Of Forgetting – Stefan Merrill Block
5. The Outcast – Sadie Jones
6. Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy
7. The Little Friend – Donna Tartt
8. My Cousin Rachel – Daphne Du Maurier
9. Bonk – Mary Roach
10. Company of Liars – Karen Maitland (as didn’t finish it this year)

Monday, December 29, 2008

When Will There Be Good News? - Kate Atkinson

This will be my last book of 2008 which is an odd feeling. I fly off to Barcelona later today and am taking Anna Karenina with me and strangely although I hope to read a lot I don’t think I will be able to get through that in just under a week. I have already typed up and saved my blogs for while I am away so hopefully I will be blogging as usual. So to the matter in hand and my last read of 2008 had to be one that I have been savouring and savouring after hearing some fantastic reviews and also having loved both its predecessors. The book in question is Kate Atkinson’s ‘When Will There Be Good News?’ the latest in the Jackson Brodie series which I hope just goes on and on.

If you haven’t read ‘Case Histories’ and ‘One Good Turn’ then frankly shame on you. Kate Atkinson has created something wonderful in fusing crime and mystery with literature without it being pigeonholed into either. She also has a fantastic plotting ability which deals with some very complex coincidences in fact coincidence has been the theme throughout these three Jackson Brodie novels however I think with ‘When Will There Be Good News’ she has surpassed the previous two, though they are both must reads.

Jackson Brodie is a former detective and private investigator who when we last saw him (forewarning of possible spoilers if you haven’t read the first two) had been rejected by his finance whilst sorting out a crime spree in Edinburgh and meet and fallen for the official detective of the case Louise Monroe. Now we pick up quite a few years later when Brodie is investigating something much more personal that ends in him getting lost in the Yorkshire moors and then on a train the wrong way which ends in a crash. In Scotland Louise Monroe is dealing with a missing homicidal manic, her new marriage and a convict fresh out of jail. How do their paths cross again, how do they intertwine with Joanna Mason who witnessed her families’ murder thirty years before and in the present day with Reggie a sixteen year old nanny who has reported her employer Dr Hunter missing when no one else cares?

I can't really say anymore on this without puting you off with the complexities (which Atkinson makes easy) or without giving things away so I will simply say that this book is simply superb! Brodie is again wonderful and Monroe is great in her very professional yet completely confused character. I absolutely loved the new character of Reggie who is used to 'everyone dying' and has a wonderfully young yet cynical and sassy look on life that I just loved, I think she is one of my favourite charcters of the year. I would like to see her come back in the future along with Brodie. I hope they do.

This has to be Kate Atkinson’s masterpiece to date (I never cared for Behind The Scenes at the Museum and must try to finish it one day) and with each in the series she gets better and better, you begin to wonder how she can top this with the next one. This particular novel however I found much darker (yet still very comedic) than the previous two as did fellow Atkinson and Brodie lover Harriett Devine. I, like Harriett, cannot wait for the next in the series and pray there is one (I have heard rumour of one in 2010) as I will be rushing to the shops for it one its day of release it should become an annual event really.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Not 'The Thirty Nine Steps'

I don’t know if anyone else didn’t watch the BBC’s version of ‘The Thirty Nine Steps’ a few hours ago? It’s just I tuned in at the right time earlier tonight and appear to have watched something completely different with the same title and same named lead character of Richard Hannay. Is this just me?


I read the book earlier in the year because I knew this would be on at Christmas and really like to read the novel before I see the TV version/film. After having loved the book so much I was really excited by the prospect of some great Christmas television, especially after how good the Beeb’s versions of ‘Bleak House’ and ‘Cranford’ have been.

Well I don’t know what happened here, I mean it started off the same and then suddenly they brought in this suffragette strumpet called ‘Victoria’ who not only didn’t exist in the book, completely took over and then also completely changed the plot from then on. Richard Hannay didn’t play second fiddle to anyone in the book and yet here he was being ordered about and getting domineered by someone who didn’t exist in the world of John Buchan. I fear the author might have been turning in his grave during the last few hours. I was so cross I didn’t watch the show about him on BBC4.

I really wish I had just watched ITV’s adaptation of ‘Affinity’ by Sarah Waters now!

Saturday, December 27, 2008

As We Get To The End Of The Year...

So naturally I have started to go through what I think are the best books of the year which I will announce on the 30th of December, in the lead up and looking at other people blogs everyone is working out how many books they have read and by male or female authors like Simon Stuck in a Book. I liked this idea of as well as blogging your favourites of the year you do something a bit different too. However I thought of a few extra questions I would ask people, so here we go…

How many books read in 2008?
I think the one I am reading now will be the last one of the year as after that am reading Anna Karenina and don’t think could read that in less than three days and finish this one so “When Will There Be Good News” will be my 102nd book of the year beating last years 69.

How many fiction and non fiction?
In total 94 fictions and 8 non fictions.

Male/Female author ratio?

50 male and 52 female which really shocked me as I thought I had read much more books by women than men, odd.

Favourite book of 2008?
I have a pretty sneaky suspicion but you’ll have to wait until the end of the year!

Least favourite?
Midnight Cowboy by James Leo Herlihy was incredibly boring though I finished it, I didn’t finish Iain Pears ‘An Instance of the Fingerpost’. I also thought that ‘Son of a Witch’ by Gregory Maguire was poor; I don’t think anything he has done has been as good as ‘Wicked’ though. I refuse to mention Abby Lee. I was also underwhelmed by Emily Bronte sadly.

Any that you simply couldn’t finish and why?
I didn’t finish the aforementioned ‘An Instance of the Fingerpost’ just because after realising that I was going to have to read the same boring storyline four times from different people I gave up during the second. My Gran read this and struggled on through but said she wished she’d given up. The other was ‘Company of Liars’ by Karen Maitland which I really wanted to read but just wasn’t in the right mind frame for, maybe in 2009!

Oldest book read?
Emily Bronte’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ which I thought didn’t live up to expectations at all.

Newest?
I have read a fair few new ones of which isn’t out until January, so a few pre-publication.

Longest book title?
I read quite a lot of long titled books such as any of the M.C. Beaton ‘Agatha Raisin’ novels but it was Mary Ann Shaffer’s ‘The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society’ is officially the longest.

Longest and shortest books?
Nicola Barker’s ‘Darkmans’ was easily the longest; shortest I think is ‘The Tales of Beedle the Bard’ by J.K. Rowling.

How many books from the library?
None, which is shameful isn’t it!?

Any translated books?
‘The Reader’ by Bernhard Schlink, ‘Strangers’ by Taichi Yamada and ‘In The Miso Soup’ by Ryu Murakami.

Most read author of the year, and how many books by that author?
Stella Duffy, I managed to devour three of her books this year!

Any re-reads?
Not this year.

Favourite character of the year?
Julie Ashton the narrator of ‘The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society’ just completely and utterly stole my heart this year, either her or Atticus from Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’.

Which countries did you go to through the page in your year of reading?
England and America through the ages, Italy, China, Switzerland, Sweden, Germany, France, Africa, Afghanistan, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, The Netherlands, Guernsey, Mexico, post apocalyptic somewhere, and of course the land of Oz.

Which book wouldn’t you have read without someone’s specific recommendation?
‘The Reader’ by Bernhard Schlink.

Did you read any books you have always been meaning to read?
Five classics; Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’, Emily Bronte’s ‘Wuthering Heights’, Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’, Henry James ‘Turn of the Screw’ and John Buchan’s ‘The Thirty-Nine Steps’.

Friday, December 26, 2008

The Reader - Bernhard Schink

Oh and another contender for book of the year happily becomes part of my Christmas reading. I actually wasn’t going to start Bernhard Schink’s ‘The Reader’ until after Christmas as I heard it was quite depressing and instead was going to dip into one of my M.C. Beaton ‘Agatha Raisin’ guilty pleasures but having seen the advert for the movie twice on television today I simply couldn’t hold off. Now just under twenty four hours later it’s all finished, I couldn’t put it down.

After having read some amazing books on the holocaust and WWII in the past twelve months or so like Marcus Zusack’s astounding ‘The Book Thief’ and John Boyne’s superb ‘The Boy in the Stripped Pyjama’s’ I didn’t know if ‘The Reader’ would live up to the brilliant reports that I had heard not from blogs but from some friends, on in particular who I was in my old book group with who told me that ‘you simply have to read it’. This book has actually been around now for ten years and book blogs or blogs in general weren’t around (how did I find what I wanted to read lol) but is resurfacing with the film coming out in January. This book is just as good as the aforementioned and yet totally different.

Michael is ill during his fifteenth year with hepatitis when he first realises he is sick he collapses in the street and with help from a lady in the street he gets home saftely. After making most of his recovery he walks to thirty six year old Hannah Schmitz to thank her for what she did. This becomes a regular visit as he is intoxicated by her and eventually is seduced by her, then starts a love affair involving Michael reading to her before and after their intimate relations, and eventually just reading before one day Hannah suddenly vanishes from his life. However one day Hannah comes back into his life in a totally unexpected way. I will say no more than that as this book has a incredibly thought provoking twist and I don’t want to spoil it for you.

Schink’s novel (beautifully translated by Carol Brown Janeway) looks at the Holocaust and things that happened during it in a way I haven’t seen before fictionally. This book is all about the generations after the war and how it felt to carry the burden of Hitler’s regime and destruction. I had never thought of what it would be like to have that as part of your history, especially in this case so recent. Through one of the characters actions he asks how people you perceive to be good could possibly do unspeakable things in unspeakable conditions. It also looks at love and emotions in a time where a country and its people were damaged and scarred.

This is simply a wonderful novel, moving, shocking, and thought provoking. If there is one book you read in the next few months make it this one. Mind you with some of the fabulous books I have gotten through in the last twelve months of blogging I have said that a fair few times, but in this case I seriously recommend it and cannot recommend it enough. I will definately be putting Bernhard's other works on my list of to reads in 2009!

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Merry Christmas Everyone

Merry Christmas everyone, am hoping that you got all the presents that you wanted and that your stockings were filled to the brims with books. We have had a lovely day here at Savidge-Reads Towers and this year saw me cook my first ever Christmas Dinner and by all reports it was better (not as good as, as I told her on the phone) than my mothers which really pleased me! Did I get any books? I only got one which has shocked a lot of people who I have spoken to on the phone, but there was actually only one that I wanted.

The book that I really wanted and was overjoyed to open (as it had been disguised in a shoe box) was Dostoevsky’s ‘Crime and Punishment’. I have been wanting to read this for years and years, have picked it up and put it down so many times but now its happily nestled on my TBR pile for 2009. I have already decided that classics are going to be big on my ‘to read agenda’ next year. Also what was brilliant was that The Non-Reader had gotten me the copy of ‘Crime and Punishment’ with the cover that I have been specifically hankering after for ages. I am a bit picky about covers and would have sneakily swapped it if it hadn’t been the one that I had wanted which I know is spoilt but these are my shelves and they mean a lot to me. I also really love the way that Vintage have taken the classics and given them a contemporary feel whils keeping them modern looking to entice new readers.
Anyways, shouldn’t be on here too long. Hope you are all having a very Merry Christmas and curled up reading in the warmth full of turkey, or shortly about to tune in to Dr Who as we are! Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Perfect Christmas Read

Only a really quick blog today as am in a mad panic to do all of my last minute Christmas shopping, okay change that, I am in a mad panic to do all of my Christmas shopping full stop.

Quite a few people have asked me in the lead up to Christmas what makes the perfect Christmas read. In all honestly I don’t actually know. I suppose people would automatically say Charles Dicken’s Christmas Stories which of course includes the famous ‘Christmas Carol’ and Scrooge who everyone thinks of at Christmas. I personally don’t tend to read themed books unless I am going on holiday and then like to read a tale that’s set where I am going. I do like a good guilty pleasure read over Christmas though.

I mean you are filled with lots of gorgeous food, you have possibly gotten up really early if there are kids in the house, everyone is off watching The Sound of Music, Doctor Who or some Christmas Special I love to sit and read a good M.C. Beaton and of course one of my favourite characters from my guilty pleasure series of ‘Agatha Raisin Mysteries’. When I was looking up Christmas books I fell across a new Agatha Raisin I hadn’t seen before ‘Agatha Raisin and Kissing Christmas Goodbye’ which looks simply wonderful. I can’t begin to imagine what madness, murder and mayhem happens to Agatha in the festive season. I would have bought this for myself for tomorrow on my manic shopping spree later only as you know I have to read everything in order.

For those of you who don’t here is the blurb. During the dark, grey days of early December, Agatha is obsessed by only two things - Christmas, and her ex, James Lacey. Although she says she feels nothing for James now, she feels sure that landing the perfect Dickensian Christmas for all her friends will somehow reanimate her love. Even the murder of a Mrs Tamworthy, poisoned with hemlock at the local manor house, does little to distract Agatha from organizing her perfect yuletide celebrations. And yet it should do, as Mrs Tamworthy had written to Agatha, telling her that one of her family wanted to see her dead before the year was out. Slightly guiltily (and belatedly), Agatha sets out to solve the case with the help of her new recruit, young Toni Gilmour. You have got to admit that sounds like the perfect book to curl up in a cosy chair somewhere and read for a few hours full of delicious food and festive cheer, maybe I will get round to this one next year.

Have a wonderful Christmas!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Never The Bride - Paul Magrs

After my difficult times through Twilight earlier in the month I hadn’t planned on reading any fiction that had any spooky goings on for a while. However I will be doing an interview in February with Paul Magrs and so the people at Headline sent me the ‘Brenda and Effie’ series as it stands so far as the latest ‘Conjugal Rites’ is out in Paperback in March and me being me I cant read things if its not in order so I decided after ‘The Spare Room’ I would give this a go as the reviews seemed to all be calling t a black comedy, just my humour and just needed after the subject of the last stupendous book. This was the perfect read and I have to say as this year comes to a close I am finding it harder to choose my favourite books of the year as right now I am reading so much (on the whole) that I completely love.

Brenda runs a B&B in Whitby, she has chosen the location for its peace and quiet and also as somewhere to finally settle along with her best friend Effie she spends various afternoons having tea or having a nice night out together. They also love a gossip and they also love a good nosey into mysterious happenings which seem to be happening a lot more often in Whitby.

Why does everyone come from ‘The Deadly Boutique’ looking several years younger but also growing oddly smaller? Who are the strange Green Family who come and stay with Brenda and have an odd look about them? Who is the new mysterious Mr Alucard? What is really going on at The Christmas Hotel with its scarily sweet owner? In what could be a collection of short stories you are taken on an adventure each time with Brenda and Effie as they bumble along like two slightly warped Miss Marple’s, a character I adore.

Having read some other reviews which said the book was ‘like living in parallel Whitby where demons and vampires live with the locals’ or ‘totally for Goths’ or ‘surreal sci-fi’ my thoughts are ‘no, no, no’. Do not let these reviews put you off as they might have done me. This book shouldn’t be pigeonholed into genres its simply fantastical story telling where spooky goings on happen in a sleepy sea side tourist trap. I wanted to move their instantly and be having afternoon teas with Brenda and Effie straight away.

Magrs has created two brilliant heroines. Brenda is nosey and investigative but kind and thoughtful which balances out Effie’s slightly cynical and misunderstanding nature. Both of them, though Brenda far more so, also have very dark pasts and as the book develops you slowly find out more and more about the two women and the skeletons in their cupboards.

I absolutely loved this as you can probably tell. I didn’t think it was like Buffy the Vampire Slayer in book for I thought it was a wonderful tale about two nosey women, their friendship and what happens when things start to go bump in the night. If you loved Willis Hall, Robin Jarvis or even The Brothers Grim as a youngster then you will love this book as someone older. Or if like me you love Most Haunted, there is a brilliant similar show in the book with hilarious outcomes or anything of a spooky nature. This book has thrills, spills, spooks and a good sprinkling of laughter thrown in. Perfect!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Spare Room - Helen Garner

Another book that everyone has been going crazy about this year is ‘The Spare Room’ by Helen Garner and finally thanks to the delightful Anna at Canongate I have been able to read a copy. Well to say that I agree with all the praise from the other book bloggers have been giving this would be an understatement, in fact to say that I was blown away by it would be a complete understatement. Like many others I don’t know how this didn’t get onto the Man Booker long or short list.

When Helen says that her old friend Nicola to come and stay in her spare room she has a limited idea of what she is taking on. It is not simply a friend coming to stay for a short holiday; Nicola has terminal cancer and could possibly have come to stay with Helen to die. Helen becomes more than just Nicola’s friend she becomes her nurse, maid and the one who stand up to her no matter how unpopular that might prove.

This novel also tells of how it is to live with someone with cancer. Its delivered in such a real way it almost took my breath away. Having spent 3 months living with someone who was terminally ill with cancer I found it incredibly emotional to read and also incredibly truthful. There are highs as much as there are lows, you don’t spend the whole time in tears, though there are lots, you laugh a lot aswell. There is a scene based on ‘coffee enema’s’ that actually made me laugh out loud. It also shows its not wrong to find these times hard.

The characters of Helen and Nicola are incredibly well written though I wanted to know more about when they had met and how their friendship had progressed which you got some clues at during the novel. Helen lives next door to her daughter and grand daughter however she is a widow and has had previous experience she is an independent strong woman like Nicola. However Nicola is in a state of denial and relying on ‘alternative therapy’ instead of anything else and has no family to rely on. As Helen finds changing the sheets every night harder and harder she also finds Nicola’s denial more taxing and their friendship is tested to the limits. How does it end? Well you will have to read this wonderful book to find out. I will say its and ending I didn’t see coming, I wont give anything else away.



I looked up Helen Garner on Wikipedia as I hadn’t heard of her and yet she has written a lot of books (which I will be ordering soon) prior to this. I also found she actually wrote this after having spent time with her friend with cancer, so you can see she has used her experiences of that time. Its also her writing, every single word counts. Its simple and sparse and crystal clear. I found this both one of the most impressive reads of the year undoubtedly, simply wonderful.

My only worry with this book is the new paperback cover. The hardback cover as you can see above is perfect, sparse and simple. Now even though this is a book that predominantly deals with two women it is by no means ‘chick lit’ or a ‘women’s read only’ I think anyone who reads this would absolutely love it. So why have they given it a new cover that simply doesn’t make sense for a spare room and I cant see a single man reading on the tube etc. Sorry that’s my only gripe.

Monday, December 15, 2008

The Thirty-Nine Steps - John Buchan

Just like I mentioned with Twilight not only do I like to read things before they come out at the cinema, or I get the DVD, I also like to read them before they come on the television. One of the adaptations for the forthcoming festive season that the Beeb are doing this year is ‘The Thirty-Nine Steps’ having had it on my TBR pile for almost two years it gave me the final push I had been needing to read it.

I really, really enjoyed it. I can completely understand why it has become on of the great modern classic (is that a contradiction in terms) thrillers of all time. Richard Hannay has just come back from a long stay in Africa. He finds everything back in London mundane and boring. That is of course until he becomes involved in a plot to precipitate a pan-European war.

After befriending and hiding a neighbour who says he knows of this plot he comes home one day to find his neighbour dead in his flat. From then on he not only has to flee the men who killed his neighbour, he also has to flee the police who want him for suspected murder. What follows is a fantastic chase and man hunt through the highlands of Scotland. Gripping train rides, plane chases, captures and escapes ensue with mighty foe’s following him as he tries to uncover the truth and find ‘The Thirty Nine-Steps’.

Like the book, I shall keep this review short. The book is short at only 160 pages and could be read in an afternoon curled up on the sofa. I took a few days over it to relish it and also to not get to confused in all the chases and the many plots and twists along the way and also to savour the adventure. I haven’t read an adventure novel in ages and it took me back to my youth and endless reading of Arthur Conan Doyle. I am going to definitely track down the rest of the Hannay adventures which I never knew existed until I looked him up on Wikipedia.

All in all a thoroughly enjoyable and definitely worth a few hours of any readers time, well we all like a good old fashioned adventure now and again don’t we?

Friday, December 12, 2008

Twilight - Stephanie Meyer

I don’t know about you, but before I see a film that has come from a book I like to read the book first. I like my mind to create the characters and the fictional towns or areas or the real ones for that matter. So with all the craze building for the first of the Twilight Saga, named Twilight, to become a film and with the sudden cult status that the books have been gaining meant I couldn’t resist but try this out. No its not what a lot of people would call literature and some bloggers wouldnt touch it with a barge pole but a) I am not those bloggers and b) it and its follow ups are completely hogging the best seller charts, so I though why not!?

I came away puzzled. In some ways I think that Stephenie Meyer has written something quite brilliant and clever, and in other ways came away thinking that I had seen this done before on the telly. I haven’t felt so 50/50 over a book and dependent on my mood I cant decide whether I think its was good fun throw away fiction between something heavier or just a bit of teen trash. From some of the blurb alone I knew that this might not be a book for me. “About three things I was absolutely positive. First, Edward was a vampire. Second, there was a part of him – and I didn’t know how dominant that part might be – that thirsted for my blood. And third, I was unconditionally and irrevocably in love with him.” Maybe not being a teenage girl doesn’t help but I love all things dark and gothic and so thought would give it a whirl.

It starts as Isabella Swan, or Bella, moves from her mothers to her fathers in a small town in the middle of nowhere called Forks. She there meets Edward Cullen a boy full of mystery at her new school who saves her life in the most bizarre of ways. Instantly she thinks she might be falling for him only there is something she isn’t quite ready for… he is a vampire. Reading that back it sounds like a Mills and Boon with fangs for teens and in some ways it is. The movie looks like its full of adventure and if the book was 200 pages less of ‘he told me he was dangerous, I told him I didn’t care, he told me he was dangerous, I told him I didn’t care, he told me he was dangerous, I told him I didn’t care’ you find yourself not caring. The ending picks up speed and sort of save the day.

Indifference and slight intrigue as to the sequel to a book is something I have never experienced at the same time before. Also for the first time I am hoping that the movie is a bit better, and that’s something you have never heard me say about a book and film before. Will I read the sequel? I just simply don’t know, the sequel might make me love it and read on so I might and then again I might not. I have really been left puzzled by this book.

Monday, December 08, 2008

To Kill A Mockingbird - Harper Lee

When Novel Insights and myself set up our ‘Rogue Book Group’ we decided that we would only do books that we owned or ones that we had always wanted to read. I have always wanted to read ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ and being sneaky I bought us both second hand copies. ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ is a book I knew nothing about other than the fact that it has sold absolutely masses and the author Harper Lee never wrote anything else. Well I think it has made it into my top ten books of all time and that isn’t something that comes easily.

The story of ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ is based around a family living in the American South. The narrator is Scout a young girl who recounts everything she sees and hears in the town during a turbulent time as Scouts father Atticus is battling the system of a black man Tom Robinson accused of rape. This in set in the present day or when the book was set but back when black people didn’t have any rights and so deals with the subjects of racism and discrimination and is one of the most accomplished books on the subject I have read.

It’s a slow starter and for the first fifty pages I couldn’t decide whether I was going to like it or completely loathe it. I also didn’t know whether the book being narrated by someone that young on such a topic would work, it actually made the book more comical, endearing, tragic, and black and white all at once. By black and white I mean in the sense that children see things in a much simpler way as Harper Lee shows in the reaction that Dill shows to the trail and this spells everything out for you as a reader and makes you really think about the whole situation and the society at the time. She also discusses women’s role and degrees of repression at the time.

The plot itself is superb as the actual trail doesn’t really start until the second part you have the plot of what caused the trial and subsequently what happens after. Behind all of this there is also the mystery of Scout’s neighbour ‘Boo Radley’ who never appears outside of the house apart from at night and who has many ‘neighbourhood gossip/rumours’. One of the themes of the books is also undoubtedly childhood and growing up seen through Scout’s eyes and also through the observations of her brother Jem (and their adventures) as he heads towards manhood and their relationship changes. Family is a big theme in the novel especially the relationship between the children and their father which is beautifully written. Atticus Finch is the father I never had but wish I did.

I have completely fallen in love with this book, all its characters no matter how evil or small and as Novel Insights and myself discussed yesterday (I again finished the book the morning of Rogue Book Group) it’s a complete literary gem. I laughed, though didn’t cry but was moved, believed completely in the characters and felt that I came away from the novel having had a true reading experience and more. It had that certain something. If you haven’t read it, which is unlikely, then you must read it soon. If you have read it why not pick it up again. I will be within the next 12 months I don’t doubt.

I wonder why Harper Lee never wrote anything else?

Thursday, December 04, 2008

The Tales of Beedle The Bard - J.K. Rowling

One of the most eagerly anticipated books of the year that is quite sure to become on of the biggest sellers of the year popped through my door (with a couple of others that I will write about tomorrow) and landed on my matt today. Yes the latest of J.K. Rowling’s books ‘The Tales of Beedle The Bard’ has come out. After the success of the Harry Potter novels could something different do as well?

The answer is… for children and hardcore fans definitely. It doesn’t really qualify as a book of totally new works because of the fact that Dumbledore runs a commentary throughout the whole book, so actually the book isn’t as full of tales as you would believe, and it is also translated by Hermione, so still has masses of Potter running through it.

The tales however are brilliant and Rowling seriously knows how to spin a tale be it long or short. Having read Perrault’s fairy tales and re-embracing my love of them earlier in the year this was another joy to read and I can imagine if Rowling made more they could become the fairy tales of future generations. My absolute favourite, though I thought it was a bit gory for children, was ‘The Warlock’s Hairy Heart’ I just thought it was simply brilliant.

All five stories are great though be it for morals such as ‘The Wizard and the Hopping Pot’ which teaches you about greed, ‘The Fountains of Fair Fortune’ which had a lovely moral to it that I wasn’t expecting and wont give away. You can find something scary in ‘The Warlocks Hairy Heart’. A brilliant main character and almost traditional fairy tale in ‘Babbity Rabbity and Her Cackling Stump’ and another almost traditional tale in ‘The Tale of Three Brothers’ which I think was my least favourite.

Potter fans and children alike will absolutely love this. It’s also for charity so if you want to remember when you were a kid and someone sat down and told you a good story then pick this up and curl up on your sofa.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society - Mary Ann Shaffer

With a superb title like that how could you possibly not want to read this book? The reviews through the blogosphere had been fantastic however with a huge TBR pile I wasn’t sure whether I should take a risk on it or not. Well after receiving a copy in the post recently it went almost straight to the top of my TBR and having just put it down I cannot recommend it highly enough.

The novel is set in 1946 and the author Juliet Ashton receives a letter from Dawsey Adams a Guernsey farmer. He has found her previous address in an old copy of Charles Lamb and has written to her to find out if she knows any more on the author and if she can recommend anymore reads for The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society. Juliet is naturally, as you would be, intrigued by the society and the people of Guernsey who have joined it and how it was formed. This sees the beginning of letters between the members of the society and Juliet. It also sees letters between her and her publisher, possible wooer and best friend as she embarks on a journey of discover of Guernsey after the occupation of the war. What exactly is the society; well you should read it to find out!

Juliet is a fantastic lead character. Having spent the war writing ‘Izzy Bickerstaff Goes to War’ under the pseudonym she now wants to start writing something new and more importantly as herself. She is a real sparky and unconventional character for her time. She has previously dumped a former fiancĂ© because when she came upstairs he had packed all her books away into the basement and filled her shelves with his trophies. She isn’t afraid of wicked journalists throwing a kettle at ones head ‘though it was empty and didn’t do any damage’.

The characters of the society almost, almost steal the show with their own tales, some funny and some incredibly moving especially the story of Elizabeth who was sent to prison leaving her daughter behind who the rest of the society look after. Of course you are taken a long and educated in it all through Juliet’s journey, I learnt so much about Guernsey and the occupation I had no idea about. I frankly wanted to pack my bags and head of there myself to take in the atmosphere and history further; you can see why Mary Ann Shaffer fell in love with the area on a visit and wanted to write about it.

Sadly Mary Ann Shaffer died before she could see her books get published although she knew it was going to be published. It’s a real shame as her voice was wonderful, managing to mix tales of deadly wit (I was reminded of Nancy Mitford when reading some of the book) with some harrowing tales and takes you along the emotions of everyone involved. Sometimes I had to remind myself it was fiction.

This is undoubtedly one of my favourite books of the year. I was worried a book of letters would become complicated especially with the amount of characters that this book contains but every voice is unique and I whizzed through the letters, I couldn’t wait to hear the latest from all the characters. Why has letter writing gone out of fashion it’s such a shame I think it needs to come back, maybe I should start a letter writing group for book lovers?

Sunday, November 30, 2008

20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth - Xiaolu Guo

I absolutely loved ‘A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers’ by Xiaolu Guo and so when ‘20 Fragments of Ravenous Youth’ arrived it went straight up to the top of my TBR. I was hoping that I would find the writing both touching and comical and that the protagonist would be again someone I enjoyed following the journey of and Guo delivered one hundred per cent.

'So I was the 6787th person in Beijing wanting to act in the film and TV industry. There were 6786 young and beautiful, or ugly and old people before me trying to get a role. I felt the competition, but compared with 1.6 billion people in China, 6786 was only the population of my village. I felt an urge to conquer this new village.' So Fenfang introduces us to her life in Beijing as a young woman searching for work, love and herself at the same time.

We follow her as she moves from place to place, man to man and random job to random job. I loved the descriptions of the parts she played such as ‘woman waiting on a bridge’ or ‘woman who says nothing in a cafĂ©’. This is where I think Guo is just superb in writing her characters, in very few words she can conjure up a people by what they say, for example ‘oh heavenly bastard in the sky’ being on of the most common thing to come from the mouth of Fenfang. It conjures up a character very quickly that tries hard but is very much aware of how hard life can be.

Indeed Beijing life is what this book is mostly about though featuring the TV world that Guo has so much experience in. Reading the afterword I found out this was actually the first book Guo wrote, she has now gone back and rewritten it as it was ten years ago and she didn’t agree with everything the original heroine was saying. For a debut novel, even if reworked some what, it is a great set of twenty snap shots of a young life in Beijing dealing with the hardships as well as the great sides. I loved the fact Fenfang particularly loved living in the area full of pirate DVD’s and books regardless of all the cockroaches, the pro’s outweighing the cons. One scene involving Fenfang swallowing a cockroach and her doctor being completely unsympathetic and saying she wouldn’t die made me feel slightly ill and laugh in abundance at once.

All the other characters are very secondary in the novel, no one else features heavily and you don’t find out masses about the people she interacts with just short concise paragraphs that tell you all you need to know. For example, one of her boyfriends who shares a room with his whole family… and a dog that uses their bed as a toilet. Can you imagine sharing a room with your partner’s whole family? The book is as it says simply 20 fragments of Fenfang’s life in Beijing and its cultures. I found it fascinating, funny and in places unsettling. I think Guo is undoubtedly one of the best new writers around and everyone should give this ago, just don’t expect ‘a concise history’ part two, I think that’s why people have said its not as good, I think it’s a sign Guo isn’t a one trick pony.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Oscar Wilde & The Candlelight Murders - Gyles Brandreth

The lovely people at John Murray sent me the second in Gyles Brandreth’s Oscar Wilde Mysteries Series I thought really it was about time that I read the first. I cannot read series in random order; I don’t know why I just can’t it seems wrong somehow. The premise for the Oscar Wilde Mysteries is that Oscar Wilde and Arthur Conan Doyle became very close friends, along with Wordsworth’s grandson Robert Sherard who is Oscar’s sidekick become involved in a mystery after meeting and set out to solve it.

I have wanted to read this for a while, Arthur Conan Doyle is one of my favourite authors of all time and I like a good mystery. I also wanted to see how it compared to the brilliant ‘Arthur & George’ which I have recently noticed have lost my copy of, not that the two books are in the same market but I like the idea of writers in fiction and Oscar Wilde as a leading man could be an interesting read.

One thing I will say for Gyles Brandreth is he knows the 1880’s and has clearly researched Oscar Wilde and the areas of London he frequented. Occasionally this does border on too much as Oscar and Robert in all seem to spend as much time eating and drinking as they do trying to solve the mystery which is fine once or twice but after a few hundred pages I was wishing for slightly less prose and more plot.

The book starts as Oscar finds the body of a young man named Billy dead in a house of questionable repute; the young escort has been murdered. Having cared for Billy ‘as a brother’ he decides to take it upon himself to find out who murdered Billy and why, even when Detective Aidan Fraser of Scotland Yard shows no sign of interest after the body goes missing. What follows is a hunt for the killer told by Sherard as he notes Oscar’s detective skills, very Holmes and Watson indeed.

I did on the whole enjoy the book though I did find it lacked the punch it promised on the blurb, I need to do a blog on blurbs, as you are told a series of murders unravel after the first. In actual fact the next murder doesn’t happen for about 200 pages after trips to Paris and the seaside and of course some meals. This isn’t boring, you just want more action, and I found I was putting the book down and not rushing back to it but enjoying it when I did pick it up. Not the quick read I expected. Once the action picks up I couldn’t put it down even though I had guessed the killer very early on.

I did overall enjoy the book and it looks to be a promising series, I think that the second will hopefully win me over when I read it in a few weeks. Give this one a go and persevere this took me a fair few days. That’s my advice with this first in the series, keep at it and it will pay off dividends. 4/5.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Dear Fatty - Dawn French

I absolutely adore Dawn French she is one of the nation’s greatest comediennes and actors and also one of the nations treasures (a lot like Julie Walters whose autobiography I nearly picked up instead of this one but am holding off for now) and after an amazing 20 years in the limelight she has written her autobiography. This however is not quite an autobiography as she points out it is in fact a book of her memoirs written to people in her life throughout her life and I simply loved the whole collection.

A huge part of the book is written to her father who committed suicide not long before she got a place at The School of Speech and Trauma as she calls it ‘Dear Dad, so you’re still dead’. These letters though sad are a delight and whilst very funny in places also show a very raw side of Dawn French that you don’t tend to see behind the humorous woman she shows in her interviews. Her letters to her father deal with times in her life when he was there and times in her life when she wished that he could have been there. I learnt so much about her childhood through these letters I had no idea that as a daughter of someone in the RAF she spent a lot of her time travelling the country and other parts of the world never really settling down, something she is now incredibly keen to do. An episode involving the queen mother is actually one of the funniest parts of the book.

She covers her teenage years and those turbulent teenage times through letters to her daughter and younger relatives. She is completely happy to divulge the negative parts of it and all the kissing and hormones in letters to both some of her ex boyfriends and some of her icons at the time. I loved a letter of all the people she’s kissed and the comments she has on the experiences. Speaking of icons interspersed amongst the letters to family and friends she writes some incredibly funny ones to Madonna who famously has refused to appear on every series of French and Saunders ever.

Whilst there are lots of belly laughs in this book there are some incredibly raw and open parts. There is a letter to Lenny Henry, her husband, telling of the ups and the downs that marriages can have and looking at those in an incredibly open way. I think bar one of the letters to her father the most touching letter she writes is one to her daughter Billie regarding her adoption and how much her birth mother loved her to have to give her away, its both fascinating and emotional and beautifully written.

If you are looking for lots of gossip on celebrities and her times with Jennifer Saunders (or Fatty as she is addressed in letters that are just very long jokes and very funny) and the Vicar of Dibley etc then this has those in the background they are not the main part of the book. What it focuses on is what has made Dawn French who she is today and most importantly by writing to them, who the people are who have made her who she is today.

I have read a lot of autobiographies in my time and they can be sensationalist and show you a very rosy side of the author. This is an upfront no holes barred autobiography that looks at people from all walks of life and how one girl became one of the nations most famous funny faces and it was the insights into her family members, pets and events in her youth that I found so entertaining and make this one of the best, if not the best autobiographies I have read. You have no excuse not to read this book. I could have read this much quicker than I did however I wanted to savour every page. A must buy and one of my books of the year.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Introducing... Novel Insights

I have the great pleasure of introducing a new book blog today. Novel Insights has been set up by one of my dearest friends and I think brings something fresh to the book blog world. Its not just all about the latest books that the blog writer has read its also about what she has learnt from books and what life lessons some characters and plots have taught her along the way.

I am not explaining it too well so just head over to http://novelinsights.blogspot.com and get reading as its much better explained there. So lets welcome a new blog to the boook blog world!

Also we might be collaborating, I say might we are, on a book group called 'Rogue Book Group' as we are reading a book together every month, one we either already own or have always wanted to read so I will be dropping her name into my blog a lot in the future.

Thats all today!

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Black Butterfly - Mark Gatiss

I have always love the Lucifer Box books and read the first two as soon as they came out in paperback. I was lucky enough to get my mitts on the latest Lucifer mystery and devoured it with the same delight as I have all the previous. There is always a worry with a series that the latest wont be as good as the last, however with Mark Gatiss as the series author I didn’t think I should worry and I was right not to. Now if you are new to the Lucifer novels then I should say they are based on a rogue bisexual secret agent. There have been two previous novels The Vesuvius Club and The Devil in Amber which have been set in different periods of British history, the latest set as the new Queen Elizabeth is crowned and Lucifer is getting old.

I have to say I didn’t think that a Lucifer Box novel would work with him as an aged and almost retiring member of M.I.5, I mean how much action and mystery could he get involved in, it would appear a lot. As the novel starts Lucifer is now in fact the head of Her Majesty’s Secret Service under the pseudonym Joshua Reynolds ready to say goodbye to the life of a spy, until he finds out that one of his colleagues has died suddenly, after witnessing another bizarre death Lucifer starts to hunt for the ‘Black Butterfly’ and embarks on a final adventure.

Mark Gatiss is of course famous for being a comic mastermind. He has also written Doctor Who so you know their will be comedy and action in equal measure. The book opens on a fabulous Bond-esque scene in an aquarium involving a damsel in distress and some piranhas which is quite a tense sequence and gives you a hint of the action to come. The comedy however is everywhere Lucifer is sarcastic and witty, you also get the feeling Gatiss is having a ball writing these with names such as Melissa ffawthawte and Kingdom Kum there are double entendres lurking everywhere. These names no matter how funny detract from the book and you getting totally involved they just add to your chuckles.

The only downside (bar the cover which I don’t like very much) is of course that for now at least, there maybe some new ones of the missing years of Lucifer one day, the Box series sadly seems to have come to a halt. I wanted this book to go on and on and so when I came to the final page I felt it had all been over far too quickly, the book is just over 200 pages and you will whiz through it. I seriously recommend this for fans of fun, mystery ad adventure you’ll have a complete hoot.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Why Do I Say These Things - Jonathan Ross

I have been lucky enough that the delightful people from New Books Magazine feel they can send me books and the like to review. Sometimes though when a package comes through the door be it from a publisher, a review for a mag, whatever you can inwardly groan. Now had this been Jonathan Ross’s book I would have possibly wept (you have seen the number of books arriving through my doors at the moment) and also I don’t really like him that much. However an audio book I was more than happy with, I could listen to it while I popped round Sainsbury’s and I actually did.

If you are a fan of Jonathan Ross then I won’t need to really sell you this because you will have already bought it or popped it onto your Christmas list. If you aren’t a fan of Jonathan Ross then this could be quite a hard sell and if you aren’t either a fan or foe of Jonathan Ross then it’s not going to matter. I will first of all say that this is not in fact an autobiography which it seems to be being marketed as. It is in fact a ‘selection of memories’ throughout his life.

I have to admit thought I found this puzzling as there wasn’t any order to it. He started of discussing the time that he ‘accidentally date raped himself’ now I know his humour is controversial and crude (especially of late) but this simply wasn’t funny and he didn’t actually make the point of when or how, and to discuss Mexican families he sponsors in the same context I thought was wrong.

I was surprised though as when Ross talks (for it is he who is reading his own work) about his pets that is when you see him at his funniest, and though you wouldn’t think he could shock when it comes to pets you would again be wrong. However it’s when he talks about his pets and the love of them all that you finally sense you are seeing a much truer side of him than you see on the TV and in the media, a much softer side. I found that really interesting and it was these bits more than the random theories on fame or date raping himself that I enjoyed the most.

I think this is also much better in audio format compared to book format. You hear the voice telling the stories that experienced them and he seems much less arrogant and patronising. It also will in places make you really chuckle, one particular story about a kitten made me laugh very loudly in public so that’s a good sign I was enjoying it, and I was… much more than I thought I would.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher - Kate Summerscale

You know when you keep seeing a book and you pick it up four or five times in the space of a few weeks and you think you want it, people have said you should read it and you just think you have too many books? If this is the case just buy the blinking book, as this is how I have been feeling about Kate Summerscale’s ‘The Suspicions of Mr Whicher’ or ‘The Murder at Road Hill House’ as it suggests, and frankly I think this is one of the best books that I have read all year. So I must say a thank you to Bloomsbury for sending me this.

The subtitle of the book refers to the fact that this is not your normal gothic Victorian murder mystery; it’s a real murder mystery. In fact ‘The Murder at Road Hill House’ somewhat gripped the nation back in 1860 and saw the dawn of the detective in the form of Jack Whicher. This murder mystery in a country house where one of the occupants definitely did it sparked imaginations of the greats and inspired novels by Dickens, Conan Doyle and Wilkie Collins over the years. It all started on an unremarkable evening during the night in Summer 1860, the Kent family went to bed a s normal however the next morning the body of a young boy was found having died in tragic circumstances, the police couldn’t work out who had done it and so Scotland Yard were called. The case became huge news and in the small town of Road there was uproar and unwanted attention with the whole world guessing ‘whodunit’.

Now I am not a massive fan of non fiction, I love diaries and letters but with most non fiction I tend to wander and read it alongside my fiction, the fiction taking priority. Not when this book was around it wasn’t. Summerscale makes all the facts and theories turn into a wonderful and spellbinding read that could put to shame some crime fiction around at the moment. The research she has done is incredible down to the trains caught on what dates, the timetables from the time to match the possible escape of the killer. Clothes worn, movements of every member of the household and makes it come to life effortlessly. You really could have been a member of the public at the time following the case, making your own assumptions and falling for the red herrings along the way.

The book does also deal with the time significantly after the murder and looks at the future of all those involved including the murderer themselves. What is also fascinating with this book is that Summerscale shows how the best writers of that era and just after used various parts of this story and its characters to create some of the masterpieces still being read today such as the ‘Moonstone’ so it’s a fascinating look at the history of crime fiction and the ‘sensationalist’ novels that became so popular following, and of course left me with a list as long as my arm of books to read in the future.

This book is nothing short of pure brilliance, and will appeal to so many people for so many reasons. If you love books then you can learn about the history and add another twenty to your TBR. If you love crime then read the murder that helped establish the genre. If you love a good yarn this ones brilliant and its true. If you like non-fiction then the research and facts you’ll read and learn without even knowing is unbelievable. Yes you might have guessed that this book is one of my very favourites of the whole year, simply a must read.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Look Who It Is - Alan Carr

Now of course coming up to Christmas this is the big season for the autobiography and everyone seems to suddenly release one. Now I am not the biggest fan of autobiographies (even though I get them by the shed load for Christmas) in fact the last one I bought was one of the Spice Girls but lets mover swiftly on as that was about ten years ago. Alan Carr’s was in a lovely pile from Harper Collins that they deliciously sent out to me.

I think Alan Carr is hilarious, I gather he is a bit like marmite in the fact that some people love him and some people hate him. I did wonder what an autobiography of his would entail as he isn’t old. I knew it would be funny, and I was proved right on that. I haven’t laughed out loud on a tube so much reading a book ever, the looks I was getting were something special. He is incredibly funny. I promise you there will be much mirth reading this book. “Puberty had been unkind. Whereas it had come in the night and left the other boys with chiselled, stubbly chins and deep masculine voices, I’d been left with a huge pair of knockers and the voice of a pensioner.”

In terms of him not having enough to write about I was proven completely wrong. He starts from his younger days when his father was in charge of the football clubs with his son being the least football interested child and how that felt, travels around the world after university to doing data entry for Mr Dog. There is a lot of heart in this book and what I find interesting is Alan Carr’s self doubt that he could make people laugh and that for him until a few years ago comedy was something he never even dreamed of doing as he didn’t think he could. He of course tells you all this with such comic timing and writing that you are giggling all the way through. My particular favourite stories involved him and cats or dogs they seemed to make me laugh endlessly but I think it’s the way that he writes it.

There is definitely the possibility of a second autobiography as this book finishes pretty much at the start of his joining The Friday Night Project so you don’t get to hear what the celebrities he has met are like which come Heat Magazine fans might have loved to see. What you do get is a delightful insight to a boy growing up in Norwich, dealing with slight confusion of who he is and what he is all about and going on to drama school and eventually the comedy circuit with all the highs and lows along the way. I recommend this to anyone who like a laugh and if you are an Alan Carr fan this is unmissable. 4.5/5

Friday, November 07, 2008

The Other Queen - Philippa Gregory

Bess of Hardwick is one of my all time favourite historical figures and Chatsworth and Hardwick are two of my favourite stately homes. So when I saw that Philippa Gregory’s ‘The Other Queen’ was indeed about Bess and the time that she housed Mary Queen of Scots for Elizabeth I, well it seemed like my perfect read. So when the lovely people at Harper Collis sent it to me it went straight to the top of my TBR.

I had read ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’ for book group back in February so was keen to see if I loved this as much as my previous foray into the world of Philippa Gregory and historical fiction. My criticism, which was minor, with ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’ was that in places it was too long and that the sudden climax of the novel was over and done with too quickly. This was my main issue with ‘The Other Queen’ but more of that later.

The Other Queen is set from 1568 to 1571 in the reign of Elizabeth I. Mary Stuart is under guard in the UK only she keeps insisting on trying to escape. Elizabeth decides to send her to Lord Shrewsbury and his wife Bess of Hardwick where her loyal subjects can be sure to keep an eye on them, for they know what happens to traitors. During this time Mary treats her prisons as a palace and bringing debt as well as controversy to the household and putting pressure on the recently married George and Bess in many other ways.

The book is written from the aspects of Bess, George and Mary, each taking it in turn to tell the tale from their side and their eyes, each mistrusting or loving the other and you are slowly weaved into the webs of their deceit, betrayal and desire. I really enjoyed the sides of the story from Bess and Mary; however George I just didn’t really feel like I got the character of. Philippa Gregory admits herself at the end that ‘George is not a man who features heavily in history books’ possibly because he isn’t very interesting. I personally would have written the third party as Elizabeth as you could have seen the ‘possible’ love story of George and Mary through all three of their eyes and her account would have been fascinating.

I do as ever admire Gregory’s detailed research, yes it is fiction but she stays as close to the truth as she possibly can. She researches meticulously to the point she found out a few knew facts about Elizabeth staying in the tower on the night of another of her cousin’s executions. This is all brilliant and makes a favourite part of history for me all the more real. It does sometimes go on a bit too long especially all the horse riding that seemed a bit overly done along with the she will go back to Scotland she won’t go back to Scotland scenes, particularly as you read it through three peoples eyes. That’s a very small moan though in what is another great Philippa Gregory novel.

Monday, November 03, 2008

The Rendezvous & Other Stories - Daphne Du Maurier

I have to admit I don’t normally like short stories but that is what is great about Book Groups the fact they invariably get you reading things that you normally wouldn’t. This month for Rogue Book Group we have done The Rendezvous and Other Stories by a woman who is fast becoming one of my favourite authors of all time Daphne Du Maurier. Having loved ‘Jamaica Inn’ and ‘Rebecca’ being possibly one of my favourite books of all time would Daphne Du Maurier’s short stories be as good as what I have read so far?

The Rendezvous and Other Stories is a collection of Daphne’s earlier works. Some of them are inevitably therefore very short more musings than full stories yet that doesn’t stop them being completely brilliant. For example ‘Panic’ which is short but also incredibly dark and a little disturbing. ‘La Saintee-Vierge’ is almost a fable in its own way looking at a woman’s innocence.

‘The Rendezvous’, ‘No Motive’ and ‘Split Second’ are the three longest tales and though I didn’t love ‘The Rendezvous’ because all the characters annoyed me and I wanted to throttle several of them but it made me have a reaction. I did think that No Motive is a brilliant murder mystery of sorts and Split Second is one of the best tales with a twist of the whole collection. It does make you admire what a wonderful writer she was and how good she was so early on in her writing career.

There are a few duds I can’t lie. I found ‘The Lover’ slightly boring and it’s a tale of a lover getting what he wants with older women that I have read a fair few times before and seemed a little bit contrived. I also hated ‘Angels and Archangels’ it again seemed to be based on the sort of things that you have read a few times before about bad vicars and didn’t seem to have Daphne’s true voice ringing through it. These two were it has to be said the only ones I didn’t like, oh no I tell a lie, I didn’t like ‘Escort’ which is possibly quite a brilliant ghost story but the words ‘submarine’, ‘naval’ and ‘war’ really put me off.

However despite these three I didn’t love most of the time I wanted the tales to be longer. In particular ‘No Motive’ which is the first tale and is brilliant, ‘Adieu Sagesse’ which I thought at the start I wouldn’t enjoy but like all good Du Maurier’s has a brilliant twist, mind you for her this was a very light and comical twist. Most of the time she has a serious dark undertone and quite a cynical outlook on life which is something that I really like about her work, she likes to look at a situation and then try and add some darker dynamic or undertone to it.

It’s a great book for a book group as we both took really different things from each of the stories, also on occasion it helps to make sense of some of the more complex stories with their double and triple twists. I would recommend this book to anyone and would actually say it’s a very accessible way to start a love of Du Maurier if you have never had the pleasure before. If you have then I assume you would have already read it, if not I assume you’ll be ordering a copy now?

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Amsterdam

My Gran simply cannot understand why I like Ian McEwan novels and I simply do not understand why she cannot like them. Despite the fact that it had it written in massive letters on the front it wasn’t until I was half way in that I saw that ‘Amsterdam’ had won the Man Booker Prize in 1998. I don’t know what the longlist was that year, I will look it up, yet I think its win is deserved.

This book is one of McEwan’s books that show exactly why I think he is a great writer and why I love his novels. The start of the novel centres around the funeral of Molly Lane (brilliant character name) who ‘could still turn a perfect cartwheel at the age of forty-six’ which I think is a brilliant way of summing up someone we never actually meet in a novel but who’s death and affairs it centres around.

At the funeral are at least three of her ex-lovers whom she would still entertain whilst she was married to her husband George. Clive Linley is successful composer though slightly conservative who is looking to write his masterpiece. Vernon Halliday is the latest editor of The Judge a long ruining but sadly failing newspaper which needs a change in style. Julian Garmony is the foreign secretary who could become the next Prime Minister and possibly ruin the country forever. However though her relationship is what ties them together initially it is the actions that follow her funeral that change their lives forever.

Like ‘The Innocent’ which I read earlier this year McEwan leads you down the garden path thinking that the story is about one thing when it is in fact about many. I have seen reviews where this is said to be a dull uninspiring book yet I was strangely gripped. I wonder if these people love ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ and ‘Heart of Darkness’? After Molly dies photo’s are found she took of Garmony cross-dressing. George gives them to Vernon and tells him to publish them, but should he, is he that desperate to shame Garmony and make The Judge successful again? When Linley goes away to the Lake District for inspiration and to get away does he see something that could have changed people’s lives forever and will he love with the guilt, and why do the ex-lovers feel the need to carry on competing?

I thought this was a fantastic book possibly one of my McEwan favourites and there have been quite a few. If you want understated plots that have sudden shocks with characters that you would hate to meet but secretly would love to be for one day and fantastic prose then I can’t see why you wouldn’t love Ian McEwan and Amsterdam. So there you are Gran, get reading!

Monday, October 27, 2008

Perrault's Fairy Tales

After reading the divine Stella Duffy’s ‘Singling Out The Couples’ which is such a modern fairy tale I had an urge to look back at the fairy tales that I loved when I was younger. Fortunately not too long ago Polly and myself had gone a little crazy (we had had one too many Sherry’s I think) in one of the late night bookstores in town and bought all the different collections of Fairy Tales by Wordsworth Classics.

I tucked myself up in bed with the delights of ‘The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood’ imagine my horror that this was not the ‘Sleeping Beauty’ by Ladybird that I had read when I was little. I mean back then she pricked her finger slept for a hundred years and was woken, along with the court and her parents, by a handsome prince who fought through thorns to find her… the end.

He didn’t then keep it a secret from his family and travel back and forth until one day his father died and he was King, then announcing his wife and two children. He also didn’t go to war and leave the mother in law Queen with Sleeping Beauty, the mother in law being half-giant and demanding she eat both her grandchildren and her daughter in law. There wasn’t a nice man who saved them all and hid them only to be found out. The prince didn’t return just as his mother had filled a cauldron with snakes and other delights over a fire to kill them all with, rescue them and chuck his mum in. Well do you know what in the original all that did happen, well it really did. I was shocked.

I felt like I had found ‘Fairy Tales: Uncut’ and as an adult I felt like I had been let into a new secret. I actually like the darker twists for example the fact that Little Red Riding Hood gets eaten and that’s that the wolf gets away scot free. I rediscovered Puss in Boots which I loved and Tom Thumb which I still don’t like along with Cinderella these stayed true to form. I also found some new ones that I loved such as Donkey Skin, The Fairies and the gore fest that was Blue Beard. Plus some new ones I didn’t like The Ridiculous Wishes which was ridiculous and Patient Griselda which Germaine Greer would hate, it makes women out to be completely stupid and that they will put up with anything.

I also liked the ‘moral of the story’ although for some of them like ‘beware the words of wolves’ were a bit vague and some of them should clearly have been re-written ‘the moral of the story is beware all mother in laws’. I have thoroughly enjoyed going back to my childhood in an odd way and discovering some more of the darker secrets surrounding some of my favourite old tales. Oh, I have just realised, I have really enjoyed some truly old classics.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Singling Out The Couples

Another Stella Duffy book to add to the collection of books of hers this year and I loved it, I loved it, oh how I loved it. I saw Stella Duffy reading from this at this months Polari (a fabulous literary evening in London’s Soho) and the way it started like a fairytale or Greek myth made me move it straight to the top of my TBR. I am so glad that I did. As a child I devoured fairytales like they were going out of fashion and my mother taught classics so I was regularly read

‘Singling Out The Couples’ is a magical modern fairytale. A princess from a land far beyond the tube system arrives in London. Cushla isn’t your average hard done by Princess, this Princess if different for she has no heart. IN having no heart the one thing that Cushla hates above all other things is love, and in particular couples in love.

She sets out to break these couples up in anyway she can using her birth given magic. We watch as she separates first Jonathan and Sally (by sleeping with Jonathan), second Martin and Josh (by becoming one of the men’s first female lover) and thirdly Philip and Frances (by finding Frances’s inner lesbian) it’s a metro-sexual fable in its own way. However in the land that is far away not all is well and the king and queen send out her brother to stop her wild antics and to stop her from growing a heart. Does it like a fairytale of old have a happy ending? You will have to read it and find out and seriously you should read it.

Stella Duffy has a way with words, it cannot be put any other way. I don’t mean pretentiously I mean she seems to love words and uses them freely and quite unashamedly which is how it should be, it read slightly like poetry in its own way. That and the mixture of a fairytale is quite a heady mix. I am really surprised that this hasn’t been optioned for TV as I can imagine it making a great three part show (maybe I should get working on that) for winter weekend Sundays.

If you like to be taken to far away lands seeing London through strange stranger’s eyes like I do, then this is a book for you. I enjoyed it no end.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Heart of Darkness

What is it with me and classics? I am beginning to get a little bit distressed by this now. Apart from Brideshead Revisited none of the ones I have tried this year have set my literary heart a flutter so far. This I think has to be my least favourite of the classics, I simply didn’t get it. I can’t pretend that I did, I just didn’t.

I did think some of the prose was simply stunning, but sadly I couldn’t put it into context, I couldn’t work out who the narrator was for a few pages which I found most disconcerting. The narrator is Marlow and he is telling his crew of a voyage he once took (this took me three re-reads to figure out – I know you should try with a book but there is trying and there is a trying book, this was the latter) travelling to the heart of an African continent to find the dictator Kurtz.

The journey he goes on opens his eyes to the true situation in Africa and also is a journey into the human mind… fallen asleep yet? I almost did. The good thing about this book was that it was short. I am wondering if I need to re-read this one day as maybe I will take more from it, I seriously doubt it though.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Dirty White Boy

Sometimes when you know an author of a book you can be really worried when they ask you to do a review. Now I only know a few writers and they know that (with my job in a magazine) if I can do anything to help/promote them I will, I also hope that they know that any review I write will be 100% honest and not be glowing just because I think the sun shines out of their bottom as a person. I would also never put a review up of someone’s debut novel if I thought it was bad… what would that achieve? So Clayton you don’t need to worry I really enjoyed ‘Dirty White Boy’.

Clayton Littlewoods book started life as a blog on myspace, the cult of blogging having led to several book deals it seems to be an area to watch ‘Wife in the North’ and ‘Belle Du Jour’ to name two. Hmmm why would I have two blogs? The blog started when Clayton and his partner rented shop space on Old Compton Street in London and started their clothes store ‘Dirty White Boy’ he started making notes on the people who came in, the crazy landlady, the brothel upstairs and the sights and sounds of a street that never sleeps. This blog got a huge following leading to a column in the London Paper and now the book.

The comparisons it has had made to it are things such as Armistead Maupin and also Samuel Pepys diary but from the noughties. You can see why the comparisons to Tales of the City, his prose is sumptuous and witty and the characters that he tells you all about are fascinating and quirky, plus Old Compton Street and San Francisco are both gay Mecca’s. The comparisons to Pepys are that it’s almost a diary (well I suppose blogs are ‘the new diary’ to a degree) charting the life of London and in particular one of the streets at the heart of it.

The street itself is pretty much the star of the show, the lead character if you will, with all the regular shoppers, tramps, prostitutes at becoming great secondary characters, only they aren’t characters, they are real. I interviewed Clayton recently and had the luck of meeting Pam the Fag Lady who was my favourite of the characters all in all. I also loved Angie the ‘Janice Dickinson-like’ transsexual and the crazy Madame in the upstairs brothel. There was only one aspect I didn’t like so much, running through it all was a love story of complete coincidence, now I believe in coincidence but in the novel for some reason it all matched up a little too neatly especially in the final blog of the book. That and some of the blogs seeming to have been edited in a new order for example Mika didn’t release anything in 2006, I know that’s incredibly picky but it made me come out of the moment randomly.

Other than those two minor, minor things I thought this was a fantastic account of the life of one of my favourite streets and I can only hope there will be a Dirty White Boy Part 2 coming our way in the next year.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Mudbound

Sometimes (even though you have a TBR pile as tall as yourself) you can hear about a book, or see one reviewed or notice a copy in a shop and you think ‘oh I shouldn’t’ - you quite frankly should. I know this after picking up ‘Mudbound’ by Hillary Jordan when I was in Sainsbury’s. Yes I know, I know, people are saying that supermarkets are ruining the book industry (don’t get me started on e-readers) but sometimes when you see something that your unsure about a bargain of £3.99 seems too good to be true. After then seeing that it was one of the Richard & Judy New Writers Book choices I though ‘oh go on then’. Oddly the strange title both made me want to read the book more and put me off at the same time if that is possible? Any way the book...

I have absolutely loved this book. Seriously I don’t think this review will ever be able to do enough justice to the book or how much I enjoyed it… well as much as you can enjoy something quite harrowing. The novel is set in the Mississippi Delta in the late 1940’s. It opens with a two sons burying their father, you are given a clue that the person who died didn’t necessarily die of natural causes. Watching the burial is Laura and the story starts with her in the past before the burial in the events leading up to it from when she meets her husband Henry and moves with him (reluctantly) to the cotton fields somewhere she finds daunting and unsettling.

Elsewhere the war has been raging on, once it ends Jamie (Henry’s brother) returns a changed man he has seen things that have shocked and scarred him and he wants to work the farm in order to escape the hustle and bustle of life. Another returned soldier is Ronsel Jackson whose family work the farm for Henry as one of the many black sharecroppers if he thought the war was hard he has no idea what is coming and the secrets he carries could come back to change his life forever.

The book is written from the perspective of all the lead characters. A personal favourite of mine was Ronsel’s wonderful mother Florence a strong and determined woman who you routed for and admired throughout the whole novel. Henry’s father Pappy is possibly one of the vilest characters I have read in a very long time just utterly despicable. Every single character was believable and even if you don’t agree with their behaviour or their beliefs you will become completely engrossed in each characters stories and motives. Each characters voice was completely whole and true and meant you saw all sides of the story even if one particular scene made me almost sick to the stomach and I didn’t see coming a mile off.

Not only did I find it astounding that someone could write such a fantastic first novel, I couldn’t believe that in just over 300 pages someone could take you on such a grand scale journey, a journey that covers affairs, religion, racism and war. Hillary Jordan uses a prose that simply draws you in and takes you along and has mastered an art some authors take years to grasp. She is definitely one to watch and I am 100% shocked that this book hasn’t been up for every award going. I can whole heartedly say this must be one of my top five books of the year.