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Updated: 2014-10-05T01:17:58.499-07:00


it's not the winning


This year I have read 9 out of the 13 Booker longlisted titles.  And I have one more on my shelf still to read. 

If I had been on the Booker judging panel I would have fought hard to get the Alison Pick and the Sebastian Barry onto the shortlist as I thought both were stronger novels than some that made the cut.

But out of the shortlist I’m torn between the Barnes and the DeWitt – and it was really only the rather abrupt ending that let the Barnes down for me.  But overall The Sisters Brothers was the best of the shortlist for me, plenty to think about, beautifully written, challenging expectations and hopefully shaking up critics who wrote it off as a genre novel.  Surely it’s about how a book is written rather than the predominant content than counts?
And if I were to hazard a guess at who the Booker panel will crown winner – I’d say they might pick Pigeon English.

I can’t wait till Tuesday to find out if I’m right…

the final four


Contrary to what this blog suggests I’ve actually read the entire Booker shortlist - helped no doubt by absence of any 600 page epics and the overall readability of the novels.  The very readability that a new literature prize, just announced, seems to attempt to challenge.  Now I don’t have a problem with readability, but equally I felt rather let down by most of the Booker books I read this year – none of them seemed to bear the mark of a truly special book, a standout winner from recently published literature.  Perhaps my ambivalence to most of the novels explains my lack of blogging about them…But, in advance of the prize announcement on Tuesday I wanted to briefly summarise my thoughts on those I haven’t yet mentioned, and thereby justify picking my own winner.Julian Barnes The Sense of an Ending felt like the obligatory wordy, witty man’s book – but I rapidly found myself warming to it.  The characters were as believable as they were irritating.  The narrators self-confessed unreliability as he takes a handful of memories and fleshes them out spoke so strongly of human truth – how would our own lives be any different if we tried to do the same?  Barnes subtly presents Tony’s priorities with pages of the narrative devoted to his friendship and only the odd paragraph to his wife and child. I feared that The Sisters Brothers was going to be a bit silly, but I was wrong – Patrick DeWitt wrote a surprisingly sensitive story.  Scene by scene we are offered characters more outlandish than the last but our brothers, particularly Eli are there to guide us and help us make sense of this strange land - ‘The harbor, at first sight, I did not understand it.  There were so many ships at anchor that their masts looked to be tangled impossibly; hundreds of them packed together so densely as to give the appearance of a vast, limbless forest rolling on the tides’.  Despite all the killings and surgical procedures not a lot actually happens, it’s more like a catalogue of near misses, but enjoyable to witness nonetheless, and throughout the plot acts as an efficient backdrop for the portrait of the brothers.Pigeon English was also a character led novel and I enjoyed time spent in Harrison’s company.  Stephen Kelman gave him a distinctive voice and world view and it was pure pleasure to witness familiar things through his eyes - ‘The devil is stronger here because the buildings are too high.’.  And the pigeon gets my vote for best supporting actor – I could have read an entire book focused on him alone.  Sadly I felt the novel as a whole was quite weak, it seemed to drift and then peter out quite suddenly and I was left feeling that Kelman had somewhat wasted a strong character on a weak plot.And my last Booker trip was in the hands of Carol Birch aboard the good ship Jamrach’s Menagerie.  Initially feeling like a cross between Oliver Twist and Doctor Doolittle I had high hopes, immediately revelling in her descriptive skills – ‘We went up a ladder to a place where there was a beast like a pie, a great lizard mad and grinning, and monkeys, many monkeys, a stew of human nature, a bone pile of it, a wall, a dream of small faces’.  I’m a long-time fan of seafaring stories and usually can’t wait to set sail.  But a strange thing happened here - once we took to the waters my interest started to sink, and like the characters themselves I found myself craving a return to dry land, and when we did things seemed to pick up again.[...]

a bit on the side


In On Canaan’s Side we find ourselves at the mercy of another confessional novel.  Lilly’s days (and chapters) may be ordered and consecutive but her memories roam far and wide.  Always a comforting travelling companion, she leads safely us through time as well as across the miles. 

‘To remember sometimes is a great sorrow, but when the remembering has been done, there comes afterwards a very curious peacefulness.  Because you have planted your flag on the summit of sorrow.  You have climbed it.’

From her childhood and her subsequent escape to America, her early days there as troubled as those she left behind.  The usual wide-eyed wonder (‘How were there ladders long enough to get bricks up so high?’) balanced by the later perspective of someone who has seen many years of life pass them by (‘Tears have a better character cried alone.’). Powerful set pieces (like the rollercoaster scene) are peppered with little details about her day-to-day life, visitors and doctors appointments.

Sebastian Barry addresses issues many of us will face, the real stuff of human life, but always manages to spotlight them in striking and poetic ways.  And it is his character creation that enables him to do this – in the process challenging my assumptions about spending so much time in the narrative company of a little old lady.  That she could be holding such a story, such truth, at times so brutal never ceased to amaze me.  I’m glad I’ve bumped into Barry again (we first met a few Bookers back), and through him Lilly – I hope others do too.

introducing the band


Like the Edwards novel Half Blood Blues is a story built upon seemingly minor actions and their eventual undesirable consequences.  We see seeds of trouble sown early – jealousy over a woman, shame in front of one’s peers, rivalry both personal and professional. 

Through Sid Edugyan quickly fills us in on how things were in both Parisand Berlinduring the Second World War, particularly if you were black or part black.  This was one of those novels where you are presented a scene you think you are familiar with, then told to look more closely, at a detail you’d previously overlooked – and there the story lies.  Perhaps a lazy comparison, but Levy’s Small Island came to mind – although that achieved it’s aim better for me.

Initially I was impressed – I felt like I was getting a decent dose of story-telling.  Sid swiftly sketching an outline of what happened and then we would wait for the details to be filled in, the characters to be fleshed out.  But sadly this never quite happened - few of the cast were as strongly defined as Sid.  A group of characters was clearly needed to support the storyline, but I was surprised that the star they all revolved around, Heiro, stayed largely superficial to the reader.

In addition and perhaps inevitably the novel relied quite heavily on the appeal of the jazz scene, which whilst atmospherically rendered (‘We sat at the knifed-up chairs, while he snapped a tan handkerchief out of his front pocket and whisked the nutshells and cigarette butts to the floor.  His eyes glistened like beetles.’) never has quite the same appeal that audible music holds, especially not for a reader who doesn’t happen to be a jazz fan.  

something for the weekend



In Snowdrops the relevance of the title doesn’t appear until near the end, whereas Edwards introduces the eponymous cupboard by page 20. From the first pages we are dragged into the story, its past and its present and plenty of suggestions that we will be shown how one becomes the other. This foreshadowing never kills the story though, never spoils what will come.

Edwards manipulates Jinx in a way that allows her to slide effortlessly through time, making a bed will allow a lengthy digression about her marriage breakdown and when she snaps back to the present we feel little sense of dislocation. It feels realistic, true to how our thoughts can roam. At other times Lemon will lead Jinx down memory’s lanes, while at other times she knows the way herself.

The characters are guarded and vulnerable at the same time, they are warm blooded and we feel a genuine sense of intimacy, of their desire to share their story in a way that Nicholas Snowdrop never quite achieved. Jinx is more than willing to let us judge her, but will we?

Cultural details form a foundation for the A Cupboard Full of Coats, they are never merely used as colour and flavour. Much like Lemon’s cooking, we are not just impressed at first taste, but left satisfied and full by the portrait Edwards offers. We don’t just witness a girl growing into a woman and the incidental things that happen to her, instead we witness blow by blow the cuts that shape the distinct individual she becomes, complete with smooth and jagged edges.

a problem shared



The first two novels I read from this years Booker longlist both dealt with the narrator offering the reader a confession - a tale of their downfall and the part they played in it.

In Miller’s Snowdrops the reader is positioned alongside the ‘you’ that is the narrators fiancé - the one he is confessing all to in the hope that she will still stand by him. We are left to wonder what we would do if we were in her shoes? I felt like we learned quite a bit about the silent English girlfriend, to the degree where I felt I’d like to meet her, to hear her response to Nicholas’ tale.

As backdrop for the confession we get a swift portrait of Russian, mostly Moscow, and these details were skilfully handled, for me Miller at his best. He scatters contrasts between beauty and corruption liberally through his pages. However, after a while it felt like he was making the same point over and over and it’s power began to wane.

It is a novel of people more than politics – towards the end it is the lies about childhood and background and the little things that bite more deeply than the bigger deceptions. Love, friendship and the stories we share matter far more than money.

The atmosphere is one of wall to wall suspicion, in Miller’s Russia even the weather can’t be trusted. But in the end even the reader doubts themself, questioning whether perhaps we haven’t missed something, something vital heart of the story that feels strangely absent.

trivial pursuits



Yesterday I rearranged my to-be-read bookshelf. For no other reason than I wondered what it would look like laid out by colour. I was pleased with the results, despite the dominance of black, and the sorry lack of green spines.

Faithful Tamara recently questioned my lack of posts. I am an avid reader, but a lazy reviewer. Whenever I make notes on a book as I read I notice how much that act deepens my appreciation of the book. But I quickly forget this fact.

I’ve read some great books over the last few months. I’ve just forgotten to share them here. But I’m reading a book at the moment, that is causing me great excitement and pleasure, and I’m making lots of notes, and hope to deposit them here soon.

In the meantime, my top ten reads of 2009 – in no particular order.

Oystercatchers – Susan Fletcher

The Romantic – Barbara Gowdy

Olive Kitteridge – Elizabeth Strout

Dear Everybody – Michael Kimball

The Transformation – Catherine Chidgey

Ocean Sea – Alessandro Baricco

The Glass Room – Simon Mawer

The Gargoyle – Andrew Davidson

Be Near Me – Andrew O’Hagan

Plainsong – Kent Haruf

the end is nigh


This year I’ve struggled to find enough time to devote to my Booker experience. I’ve kept up with my reading aims, but not the consequent blogging. And here we are, on the day of the big announcement, and here I am, cracking out a quick post to give me some sense of last minute involvement.

You’ll have to take it on trust when I tell you that my shortlist predictions were very accurate this year. I guessed 5 out of 6 of the judges choices. I wonder if that might help me in guessing the winner again this year?

Since my last post I read The Little Stranger and didn’t think that much of it. I conclude once again that I just don’t get Waters. I read The Glass Room which I loved and has jumped out as one of my best reads of 2009. I read Summertime which excited me and made me think a lot, and made me realize Coetzee is really quite cool. And I’m currently ploughing on through The Children’s Book - which I’m liking quite a bit, but I’d enjoy far more if it was in paperback and not such a killer to hold.

And so to winners and thereby losers. My personal pick for the Booker Prize 2009 would be The Quickening Maze. It’s stuck with me long after reading, and I think it has a lot of hidden depths. It would be great to get it to a wider readership, who might find unexpected pleasure in reading the prose of a poet. But if I can’t have that I’d be very happy if Mawer took the prize.

But I feel, as ever, that the judging panel won’t agree with me. Sod’s Law would have Wolf Hall win as I haven’t read that one (and doubt I will). I doubt they’ll give it to Byatt or Coetzee again. Overall I’ve got a nasty feeling that Sarah Waters will win this year…

lost in a forest



A strange thing happened with The Quickening Maze in that the novel has seemed to get better the further away I’ve got from actually reading it.

A relatively short book, it tried to pack a great deal into it’s pages, mainly through the multiple character threads we jumped between. This reinforced a sense of confusion, perhaps echoing characters who don’t always have a firm grip on who they are. The reader is pulled in as one of the many confused souls, but after a while the charm of the maze began to lose it’s appeal. However with the safety of distance I realise I actually quite enjoyed myself!

I especially liked Fould’s emphasis on setting. The buildings and the forest were vivid and almost acted as characters in themselves, creating a strong rural gothic atmosphere throughout.

‘Even the building looked mad: plain, square and tight, with regular small barred windows that emitted shrieks.’

Dividing the novel into seasonal chapters gave a strong sense of time passing, and the actions in each chapter sat well within the intended season. The first Autumn section felt like trying to grasp at many tumbling leaves, but by Winter characters had begun to still and settle into their roles.

‘the stopped fish under their dirty window of ice.’

Whether because Foulds is a poet, or due to the historical setting of the novel at many times I almost forgot I was reading a contemporary novel. The dialogue and description felt like they genuinely reflected the 1840’s. In The Quickening Maze Foulds created a vehicle to deliver regular bursts of his poetic prose which makes this novel one of the more elegant for it’s language on this year's longlist.

‘Two crows cranked past with their slow labouring stroke when a wind caught them and swept them round like a finger turning a clock hand.’

It’s possible that The Quickening Maze needs the same attention that a poem requires and that further readings might better unravel it’s many layers. As the Booker judges will be re-reading these novels I think it’s highly likely that we might see this title on next weeks shortlist.

confessions of a chimp



One of the joys of the Booker Prize list is when I’m introduced to a novel I would not otherwise choose to read - and Me Cheeta certainly fits that bill. And a good job I took a chance on it because I was hooked after a just a few pages.

I know a fair bit about primates and next to nothing about the Golden Age of Hollywood but neither were a barrier to enjoying this book. Whilst specific names and films and incidents meant little to me the overall tone kept me engaged throughout. Cheeta’s story bears much relevance to our current celebrity obsessed culture, where hopefuls fling themselves at fame, and even minor celebrities update their autobiography every other year. At times I had to pinch myself to remember that this was fiction (sort of).

Cheeta, the ultimate unreliable narrator, played varied appealing roles within his life story, and I’m left with many memorable moments. There were scenes of innocence and experience - eating his first banana, seeing stuffed heads of walls and commenting on the animal loving nature of the home-owner. A master of faux naivety, the reader rapidly realises that Cheeta knows far more than he is letting on, such as when he calls a plane an ‘iron bird’ when knowing full well both it’s make and model.

There were moments of existential wisdom -

‘A human trying to act a chimpanzee is somehow pathetic, whereas a chimpanzee trying to act a human is funny because… well, why is that? Something to do with aspiration. You think we’re pure and want to be us. We know you’re not pure, but we still aspire to be you.’

and heartbreaking poetry -

‘I still felt scattered, like the golden light rippling on the underside of a bridge.’

Me Cheeta does what many of the best of the old films does, it makes you laugh, it makes you cry, and it sucks you in despite any reservations you may hold. Earlier copies of the novel name Cheeta as the author, and online articles talk of James Lever merely ghost-writing the autobiography, so it’s hard to know who to credit with the achievement. But it’s fun and unexpected and great to see such a banana skin slipped in amongst the more serious Booker longlisters.

land of confusion


The Wilderness is the first novel I’ve read that features a central character with Alzheimer’s. It’s a disease that offers plenty of potential for literature, but has inherent pitfalls, which I fear that Harvey fell into at times. The way Harvey charts the progression of Jake’s illness is memorable and moving. Incidents such as the first time a loved one notices that something isn’t quite right, losing common words, and finally total bewilderment at everyone and everything. ‘He sees a mouth moving, hears words cluster together like a series of shapes that promise tessellation, but which do not, no matter how one turns them.’ I also liked the structure that Harvey used, with the main story interspersed with titled chapters reflecting past events. This made the novel feel a little like a collection of stories, perhaps showing up that there is less organisation to life that we sometimes like to believe, a pretension that Alzheimer’s is keen to strip away. In the same way as Toibin with Brooklyn I feel Harvey probably achieved her aim, but in reality I found The Wilderness quite a confusing read. Some people have simple lives - if they then develop Alzheimer’s it becomes more confusing. However, when someone has a complex life (as Jake does to my mind) and then Alzheimer’s comes into play the story descends into chaos. To my mind Harvey tried to do too much, and didn’t quite pull it off. Jake’s story without the Alzheimer’s might have worked, the Alzheimer’s story without quite so many other threads might have worked, but the two together clashed. ‘Gradually he is being scattered and lost - hundreds of unread messages floating out across the sea.’ I came to care for the increasingly unreliable narrator Jake, his pockets stuffed full of letters, head stuffed full of grand plans for glass houses, his heart pulled in many directions at once, but at too many times during the novel I felt like I was the one losing the plot.[...]

there and back again


Irish novels often feel like familiar territory. In almost every one a character heads off to America in hope of a better life. So Brooklyn, with its central story of just that journey, seems like a good place to start my voyage into Booker waters. This is a novel about a couple of years in the life of Eilis Lacey. And that is both its strength and its weakness - because a novel that has such modest aims relies heavily on the ability of that character to engage the reader. And there Eilis struggled for me. Eilis is supremely passive. Life happens to her. Major decisions are made for her, and she goes along with them. She assumes there are no other options, but she doesn’t even look for them. I felt little connection with her, perhaps because there was so little substance to connect with. In fact the only glimmer of life came when grief visited. As if until then she was a blank slate waiting for pain to write its message on. ‘Somehow, she thought, if she could look at him, take him in clearly when he was not trying to amuse her or impress her, something would come to her, some knowledge, or some ability to make a decision.’ It seems clear that Colm Toibin intended Eilis to be this way, and he succeeded in maintaining that throughout, but in creating such a passive character inevitably the novel itself took on a lot of her character. At times I felt I was drifting through it, floating from scene to scene, with my attention only partly engaged. Thankfully my partial engagement took notice of some of the background details which gave my reading greater satisfaction. Many of the minor characters were lively and entertaining. I was particularly fond of the wily Mrs Kehoe. The dialogue of minor characters often brought scenes to life and offered genuine humour in places - ‘No one likes flies,’ Miss Kelly said, ‘especially on a Sunday.’ I also loved the significant role of letters throughout the novel. It is letters that firstly arrange her passage to Brooklyn, and once there Eilis comes to experience her Brooklyn largely through what she chooses to share or omit from her letters home. A times letters hold offer both good and bad news, and in the end they remain unopened and unreplied to signalling Eilis further decent into passivity. Brooklyn is an example of good old-fashioned linear storytelling. Nothing wrong with that. It’s a calm voyage with Toibin at the helm, although at times I felt like we were barely moving. Admittedly we got to our destination but I can’t help thinking I would have enjoyed a few more choppy patches.[...]

the pick of the crop


Slap bang in the middle of an English summer, clouds in the sky, and the Booker longlist announced yesterday.AS Byatt - The Children's Book JM Coetzee - Summertime Adam Foulds - The Quickening Maze Sarah Hall - How to Paint a Dead Man Samatha Harvey - The Wilderness Jame Lever - Me Cheeta Hilary Mantel - Wolf Hall Simon Mawer - The Glass Room Ed O'Loughlin - Not Untrue & Not Unkind James Scudamore - Heliopolis Colm Toibin - Brooklyn William Trevor - Love and Summer Sarah Waters - The Little Stranger My initial impression was one of pleasant surprise that there were quite a few books already on my ‘want to read’ list. In particular How to Paint a Dead Man by Sarah Hall. Her Electric Michelangelo was one of my Booker highlights in 2004 and last year I read her earlier Haweswater and it was my book of the year. I can’t wait to see how this one measures up. I’ve picked six titles to start with, I’ll see how I get on with those and if I’m still hungry I’ll come back for a second helping. I already had my eye on the Colm Toibin and the Samantha Harvey, so they were easy choices, and I decided to try again with Sarah Waters, as while I’m never that sure about the strength of her writing, she usually writes a pretty good story. The Quickening Maze appealed as I’ve liked fictionalised realities of poets in the past. I’m pushing my boundaries by choosing to read Me Cheeta, it sounds simply bizarre, but Booker reading is about self-challenge, reading things I otherwise might pass over, so that had to go in the virtual basket. Overall it seems to be a very appealing longlist. If I was asked to read all 13 there is no single title that I would be eyeing with dread. Although for the moment I’m skirting around those two hefty volumes! It seems a varied selection as far as setting and story and time. And with possibly less political agenda that in previous years. A notable absence of an Indian novel too. Quite a few titles that focus on artists, writers. A few that interweave fact with fiction. All in all I’m looking forward to my first batch of books arriving. Let the summer commence![...]

a rose between two thorns


Only a couple of days to go before the Booker longlist is announced. Just time to tidy the scrapbook and catch up with my best reads for the last few months. The benefit of getting behind with these means I get to look back and reflect with a little distance, and often the quieter titles shine through with more lasting warmth than those that burned brightest at the time. Stephen Clayton undoubtedly created a great character in Jonathan. Reflective, existential and able to make fascinating even the most mundane of daily activities. At times I felt like I was reading a modern day Camus. But where the death in The Outsider illuminates Meursault, the death in The Art of Being Dead overshadows Jonathan. It clouds him and draws attention away from the real strengths of Clayton’s writing. I felt like he started well but didn’t quite manage to sustain his creation but this was still easily my best read in April.‘I was a part of the pub and the silence and the rain, and yet I experienced everything as if through a thin sheet of frosted glass; as if I were my own ghost watching my life unfold about me.’In contrast Michael Kimball managed to hit the right note straight off and stick with it. Dear Everybody was utterly engrossing and at times almost too real to bear. Impossible to read without wondering what collection of scraps we each might leave behind. Not just my book of the month for May, but stands a high chance of being my book of the year. ‘Unfortunately, the photo shop also processed the unused film at the end of the roll, so that the last few photos are all just black, which made me realize that they were actually photos of all the things that we never did together.’ I sometimes read pieces by Burnside in the LRB. His style draws me in and I find myself fascinated by whatever he chooses to share with me. And so it was with Glister, a weird little tale of a strange Scottish town and it’s peculiar inhabitants. I liked dipping into their perspectives, each as unsettling as the last. I liked the feeling of tension and not-quite-rightness throughout. The ending felt like it spun out of control a bit, but hard to think of a better way to wrap up what Burnside had weaved by then. Quirky and a little rotten, my top June read and one I won’t forget in a hurry. ‘the dead so away into their solitude, but the young dead stay with us, they colour our dreams, they make us wonder about ourselves, that we should be so unlucky, or clumsy, or so downright ordinary as to carry on without them.’[...]

My books of months gone by


I’ve got a bit behind with my book blogging, but thankfully not with my book reading, and I’ve got a couple of Book of the Months for February and March to share.‘My mind hopped around agitated on a high tree, would not come down, would not let me read…’ I’ve developed quite a taste for books based in cold settings.  Snow, ice, remote, barren, wind-swept places, they all appeal within the pages of a book read in a nice centrally heated house with a cup of tea!  So when John Self reviewed Julius Winsome at his Asylum I knew I had to read it.  And I wasn’t disappointed.  Slightly shaken up, but not disappointed.  What a book!  I had to force myself to read it slowly, as I knew I did not want to miss a single word.  I had to remind myself to breathe.  And sometimes to put the book down if I was gripping it too tightly, just as it gripped me.  It was so tense, emotionally as well as through the plot, which is a simple but perfect vehicle for Julius to meet us.    ‘The winter is fifty books long and fixes you to silence like a pinned insect; your sentences fold themselves into single words, the hand of twelve makes one hand of time.’ If I could stand the loneliness, the cold, the guns and the dead dog then this is the life I would choose to lead.  In the meantime I’ll just enjoy the book. I was impressed by my first introduction to Kate Grenville via her 2006 Booker nominated The Secret River.  She has the ability to draw me in, almost purely through the strength of her writing, to stories that might otherwise slip through my fingers.  Her next book I read was Lillian’s Story, which I got in a grotty little yellowed paperback.  However the story and characters exploded like one of those snakes in a can, and I’ve never quite crammed them back in since.  At times I still feel that a little bit of Lillian is lingering near.  I was eager then to read Dark Places which Grenville wrote to tell the story of Albion, Lillian’s father, in some ways the flipside of Lillian’s Story.  What a great idea - I can’t stop thinking of how many other books I’d like see this done to!  It feeds that need of wanting a bit more once a novel has ended, without resorting to a sequel. ‘Their features were jammed together in the centre of their faces like an afterthought, and they all stared out woodenly at the world, as if it cost money to have an expression on your face.’ And Dark Places has nothing of the sequel about it.  It begins before Lillian’s Story, and like that, follows quite a linear path of a character’s life.  But it is in no way dull for that approach, and whilst at times it is painfully obvious where Albion is heading, we are still gripped to see him get there.  Again Grenville has created an utterly life-like character, and while there were times when I felt very uncomfortable spending so much time with such a vile man, I couldn’t help but see him through to the end.  And like Lillian, I don’t think I’ll be forgetting him in a hurry.  [...]

The Letters - Fiona Robyn


Over the past few years of blogging I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know a select handful of published authors.  I’ve found it fascinating to learn a little about their writerly lifestyles and habits alongside talk about their families, interests and amusements.  I’ve picked up tips, numerous reading recommendations and endless encouragement on the way.  And typical me, I’ve hoarded their books, eking out the eventual pleasure of reading them.  Fiona Robyn had her book on that pile, and I’m allowing her to jump to the top as it’s due out on Monday 2nd March and this seemed the perfect time to read it and share my thoughts! I knew it would add an extra dimension to my reading to feel I know the author if only virtually.  However I didn’t realise how hard it would make this post.  I want to shower The Letters with unconditional praise and say I adored every page.  But I can’t, not quite. One of the things that makes me like a book is if I like the people, places or events within it.  It takes an outstanding writer to make me enjoy a book if I don’t like the main character.  And truth be told, I didn’t like Violet.  I didn’t like her attitudes, or her lifestyle.  I don’t think I was particularly meant to like her, but I found it hard even to tolerate her.  The only times when I warmed to her at all were when she was reminiscing about her childhood.  I felt I could have been friends with the young Violet, but not the woman she grew into.  I didn’t like the regular need to use quoted words and phrases within the prose referring to Violet - I felt she might be one of those people who constantly makes quote motions in the air with raised fingers.  I wished she’d have used her own voice, her own phrases throughout and not fallen on the safety net of those marks.  Some might say that Fiona Robyn has created an authentic character if she can inspire this much dislike in a reader! ‘She’d never been a natural at developing connections.  Other people seemed to find them so easy.  She sometimes imagined them as having lots of different coloured strings attached to their bodies, representing the things about themselves that other people would find attractive or interesting.  All they had to do was take the end of one of these strings and offer it to a passing stranger, and the stranger seemed to willingly take it and become a friend.’ That said there were large parts of The Letters that I enjoyed very much.  I loved the letters themselves, the way they appeared out of nowhere and were largely unremarked on by Violet for the majority of the novel.  This allowed me to feel like they were my secret.  It hinted that I might be able to work out their message before she did - I didn’t, which made the final twist all the more pleasing!  I liked and believed in Elizabeth and warmed to her through her words.  I would have liked to have spent more time with her.  I loved the structure Fiona Robyn chose for her novel.  The shifting back and forth in time weaved the whole together into a neat bag to carry the main plot.  There were sharp observational details throughout, as I would come to expect having enjoyed her small stones for some time. I was most delighted by the seaside scenes, and strangely for me, the cat scenes. ‘She didn’t know why she’d never paid proper attention to raindrops before.  There was a whole country of individual drops, like citizens, and when a new one splashed down it would either find its own place and sit quietly, or it would merge with a neighbour.  If the new raindrop and the neighbour created enough weight they would be smeared acros[...]

My book of the month - January


I’ll admit that once I would have been a bit snobbish at the thought of book recommendations given by a popular television pair.  But over the years I’ve noticed that quite a few novels I’ve really enjoyed have appeared among the Richard & Judy selections.  I recently got a copy of The Luminous Life of Lilly Aphrodite - so when I saw it on R & J’s 2009 selection I thought I’d jump it to the top of my reading pile.  And what a treat it was. Beatrice Colin tried to do a few things within the novel, and achieved all with a well-handled balance.  Each chapter begins with still image (and for me there is something so thrilling about finding pictures in my novels) and a little snapshot from cinema history. ‘Every evening for a year, barring church holidays, and days off due to ill health, Arnold von Heidle and his wide, Hilda, attended the Union Movie Theatre in Alexanderplatz, Berlin.  Two hundred and fifty films they witnessed, incognito, to assemble their extraordinary statistics.  And this is what they saw: ninety-seven murders, fifty-one adulteries, nineteen seductions, thirty-five drunks, and twenty-five practising prostitutes.’ Then within the chapters we follow the story of Lilly - a gripping rags to riches story.  Her name changes with her role - Tiny Lil, Lilly, Lidi.  From orphan to housemaid to film star - from backroom fumbles to a personal invitation back to Germany from Joseph Goebbels.  Along the way we learn a bit about interwar Berlin life - especially as it impacts on a small group of women.  We grow to love Lilly, and her perseverance and spirit despite the bad luck that always seems to dump on her doorstep.  ‘With snow thick on the ground outside and the air filled with dozens of burning cigarette ends, the bar gave the impression of warmth if not the real thing.’ This was one of those rare books that I thought about when away from its pages.  I cared enough about the characters to be eager to return to spend more time with them, and I wondered more than a little at what happened to them after the novel ended.  Hence I especially enjoyed the gently omniscient narrator who gives us little glimpses into the fate of those extras who people Lilly’s world - some get their just desserts, some don’t.[...]

a land of plenty



I’ve heard a number of sad statements regarding books at this seasonal time of year.  People saying they have never given or received a book as a present, and that books number among the most unwanted presents.

To redress that balance I bagged a bumper haul from under my tree this year.  Family and friends may tire of wrapping flat rectangles but they know what will make me happy.  

A little something for the many corners of my reading personality, plenty of pages to dip into through the year ahead.

  • Drawing Matters - Jane Stobart
  • The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain - Betty Edwards
  • ABC 3d - Marion Bataille
  • 4000 Animal, Bird and Fish Motifs : A Sourcebook - Graham McCallum
  • Bird by Bird : Some Instructions on Writing and Life - Anne Lamott
  • 52 Projects : Random Acts of Everyday Creativity - Jeffrey Yamaguchi
  • The Haiku Anthology - CVD Heuvel
  • Crow Country - Mark Cocker
  • A Prickly Affair : My Life with Hedgehogs - Hugh Warwick
  • Tossed : 200 Fast, Fresh and Fabulous Salads
  • Vegetable Heaven : Sensational Seasonal Vegetarian Cooking - Mason & Abramson
  • The Virago Book of Love Letters
  • Angela Carter's Book of Fairy Tales 
  • The Penguin Book of Classical Myths - Jenny March

This morning I also received a copy of The Art of Being Dead by Stephen Clayton.  I have no idea where it came from or who sent it.  I don’t recall asking for it, or ordering it, but I’m very pleased to give it a home as I’ve read a lot about it and want to read it.  What a pleasant surprise!  They say money doesn’t grow on trees, but this morning it almost felt like books did!

hunting and gathering


When it works fiction can do many things - it can entertain, enlighten, educate or challenge.  I know I’ve read a good book when I walk away with at least a couple of these in my basket.  When a book dispenses a hefty dose of imagination it can also change the way you see something, so that you will never see that thing in quite the same way again.  Two recent reads did that for me The Night Country (Stewart O’Nan) and Firmin (Sam Savage).  After reading these books ghosts and rats are forever altered.  O’Nan doesn’t rely on the usual ghost reactions - instead he elicits our empathy for his ghosts, and shows us the fine lines between the living and the dead.  And in Savage’s creation of Firmin, the little book-loving existential angst-ridden rat, I feel I’ve found a true friend. Sometimes I get stuck in a run of poor books, ones that don’t hit the mark, that I trudge through beginning to end.  And then I hit a rich vein where every one seems to sparkle and shine.  And hot on the heels of those two came Astrid and Veronika (Linda Olsson) - the kind of book that tears me in two.  I want to linger over every page, savour every word.  I want to take time between chapters to contemplate what I’ve just read before I return for another dose.  But at the same time I can’t tear myself away, I feel bereft when I lay the book down.  Not because of a page-turning plot, but just because I feel at home within the pages, and a little more lonely when away from them.  This is the kind of book I want to write.  A simple story about two women and their unlikely friendship.  But within that the whole of their lives.  Two stories, more stories, meeting in one.   There is perfect attention to detail throughout, colour, texture, light and sound.  Little images connect to create a memory space for the two characters to dance in.And finally for something a little different.  Usually I’m content with any old paperback copy of the book I want to read, but very occasionally I hold out for a particular version.  And The Book of Imaginary Beings (Jorge Luis Borges) was one such case.  I saw that there was a hardback version with quirky illustrations (by Peter Sis) and I knew that was the way I wanted to come to this book.  It’s my first experience with Borges and won’t be my last, although I acknowledge its not a full dose of him, being a kind of encyclopaedia.  Within these pages I’ve met many wondrous new acquaintances along with more familiar faces.  Two of my favourites have been The Ink Monkey ‘whenever people write, it sits with folded  hands and crossed legs, waiting till the writing is finished, when it drinks up the remainder of the ink’ and Swedenborg’s Angels where ‘Things’ appearances change to correspond to states of emotion; each Angel’s clothing shines in proportion to its intelligence’.  Both of who would be handy to know in day to day life!   [...]

batten down the hatches


When I published this post I noticed I'd started it with the same complaints as I'd written in my last post regarding the poor selection of Booker titles this year etc etc.  So I'll cut the repetition and admit that I rather lost interest in the process.  I’d read all but two of the shortlist and couldn’t face trying to slog my way through the two giants that I hadn’t - although if either wins I might read it once it makes paperback.  My favourite read was the John Berger which didn’t make the shortlist, and from the short list I’m backing Linda Grant, but I’ve got a funny feeling that the judges will chose The White Tiger as their winner.

I finished Sea of Poppies and did enjoy it, but have learnt that I don’t really
 do epics, and its clearly that.  It obviously felt like the first part of a trilogy as the resolutions that were reached by the end weren’t large enough considering the build up.  I was also a little let down that it took till two thirds of the way through before all involved parties with gathered on The Ibis, and we only hit the sea at the very end.    

‘The wind had fallen off, so there was not a fleck of white visible on the surface, and with the afternoon sun glaring down, the water was as dark and still as the cloak of shadows that covers the opening of an abyss.’

It took me a while to get to grips with who was who, although when I was with any character I felt fully immersed in their story.  It felt like mingling at a giant party, where you soon get to know whose company you enjoy the most.  I most liked my time spent with Deeti and Paulette.  

Although there was lots of strange and inaccessible dialect words, slang and shipboard terminology that we couldn’t hope to understand I didn’t feel lost as many characters seemed equally baffled and there is a comforting lack of a glossary - so we are clearly encouraged to take it as it comes.

‘…beneath the surface of this farrago of sound, meaning flowed as freely as the currents beneath the crowded press of boats.’

Sea of Poppies also contained my favourite animal encounter of my Booker reading - the scene with the stoned monkeys hanging around outside the opium factory.

So, I’ve left the Booker behind for another year.  My papery boat is currently sailing me into mountainous territory courtesy of Robert Macfarlane - Mountains of the Mind.  I’m also planning a few spooky reads in a nod to the annual R.I.P. challenge.

short measures


The announcement of the Booker shortlist is expected later today.  I have read 7 and ¾ books from the longlist.  And have shared my thoughts on 7 of those here.  I’m 100 pages from finishing Sea of Poppies and am hoping that we actually head out to sea before the end!

It seems I’m not the only person to feel a little disappointed by this years selection.  Or perhaps the past few years have just spoilt us.  Some of these books felt quite a drag to get through whereas in the past I’ve enjoyed being introduced to some sparkling new literature.  Perhaps this year offered a poor choice of new releases, perhaps the Booker judging panel have unusual tastes?

Only 4 of those I read deserve a place on my shortlist, those being - 

From A to X - John Berger
The Lost Dog - Michelle de Kretser
The Clothes on Their Backs - Linda Grant 
The Secret Scripture - Sebastian Barry

I’ll wait to see which titles make the official shortlist before I decide whether to read any more this year…

From A to X - John Berger


  • We are allowed access to the letters sent from A’ida to Xavier during his time in prison.  We are eavesdroppers in their story - trying to(image)  build a picture of their lives despite the non-chronological order of the letters and the lack of responses from Xavier.  We cannot know everything, we are asked to read between the lines.  We must bring our own contribution to this story.  Berger demonstrates the principle of show not tell at its very best.  
  • Everyday events are interspersed with feelings and thoughts.  This is true communication - the art of letter writing, of love.   It is writing to share life experiences, however mundane.  Love is so tangible in these letters - perhaps proving that absence does make the heart grow fonder, perhaps such passionate expressions of love could only be shared through a letter rather than face to face.  
  • The troubles in their country are inherent and referred to but never dominate and aren’t explained or justified or attacked - and they gain power for that.  A’ida shields Xavier from the harsher truths, sometimes only offering him news that will comfort him.  She writes the harder things for herself, but they remain unsent.  
  • There are many striking moments that will stay with me for a long time - images and events that A’ida describes, like flying with Xavier, the isolation, the height and defying gravity.  Berger captures the sensuality of this woman so well.  One of my favourite letters was the one where she is eating blackcurrants and spotting small snails.
  • Collected quotes - ‘He walked several hundred metres down the road to one of the ancient ruins, where a window-frame was still a window-frame, even if there was no glass, and a chair was still a chair with two legs missing.  There he found in an outhouse what he was looking for - a broom.’ and ‘I take a small bite for both of us.  The baked wheat flour and almond dust, sweet and a little greasy, lines the top of the palette, it sticks to the curved roof of the mouth, whilst below, on the floor, on our tongue lie tiny fragments of roasted nut to shift between the teeth and bite into.’
  • My favourite Booker read so far - 8 out of 10 snails(image)

and now for a short break


I’ve not read a lot of short story collections - but over recent years I’ve dipped into Hanif Kureishi, Anne Enright, Bernard Schlink, Ian McEwan, and Franz Kafka among others. Only two short story books have had any lasting impression on me - The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios (Yann Martel) and The Bloody Chamber (Angela Carter). At best I find I am no sooner getting involved in a short story before it has ended. I often find little connection between the stories in a collection and they appear randomly bundled together, with quite a few appearing as padding. At worst a story can read as little more than a writing exercise that should never have gone any further than the authors notebook.My aim with Short Story Summer was to immerse myself more fully in the form and to try to break down my barriers to enjoyment. And I feel I have succeeded. And I think the shift has come due to my redefining what I hope to get from the stories. The best analogy is the album versus the compilation. I am a fan of both, but there is a time and a place for each. If I want a complete piece, which hopefully speaks as a whole and shows progression throughout I will opt for an album by an artist. If I want variety, and am willing to accept that some tracks will be great, others less so I would choose a compilation. And this is how the short stories have worked for me. Reading them alongside novels means that if I want a sustained reading session, picking up familiar characters and plot and places I will reach for the novel. If I want a quick fix of something new I will read a couple of stories. I’ve also learned to look for my own themes to tie the collections together, and once I’ve found these the stories have felt more satisfying.I’m not done with my journey into the land of the short story - I’m halfway through Dave Eggers at the moment, but for now, these are the ones I’ve read -Margaret Atwood - Moral DisorderI broke myself in gently by reading a collection by an author I like. Atwood has also chosen to unite her stories by having them revolve around one central character - meeting her at different times and places in her life. Many stories focus on relationships with friends, lovers, parents, siblings, children and animals. I particularly enjoyed ones about houses lived in and the movements between them, her as a teenage literature lover, and reading the morning news. Atwood offers vignettes of a life - some are familiar to me as a reader some not so, but the way she portrays them allows me a level of access and recognition to each.‘She was particularly apprehensive about doors, and about who might come through them.’Andre Dubus - Dancing After HoursThis was the most striking of the three collections I read. Dubus writes with precise, tight prose. Sentences are sparing with each word carefully placed. The stories focus closely on people and particularly their feelings. Bodies thriving and failing featured often. He seemed especially strong when writing from the female viewpoint. Three of the stories feature the same character - as if Dubus can’t quite bear to let her go. The stories are fragile, heartbreaking, uplifting and poetic. Some of the stories feel as though they are written backwards - you know what the big conclusion is going to be from the start, but the pleasure is in seeing how you get there.‘…feared scattered her grief: it lay beside her, hovered behind her. Shards of it stayed [...]

Girl in a Blue Dress - Gaynor Arnold


  • They say don’t judge a book by it’s cover - but I think its important to like something you (image) are going to hold in your hands for a few days. And I don’t like this, the blue is too blue, that silver ‘nomination declaration’ looks tacky and was clearly added at the last minute and the paper quality is quite poor, it almost feels a bit vanity press. I know that Tindal Street is a small independent publisher but I don’t recall that What Was Lost from last year looked this bad.
  • I thought the parts about the public grief and mourning and mass funeral of Alfred Gibson were quite interesting as they seemed very current with the ways the public has claimed a share of private grief and the nature of celebrity.
  • There was a dated feel to the prose. I wonder if this is inevitable or intentional? either way I didn’t really like it. If I wanted to read a Dickensian novel I would read Dickens. Which brings me to another gripe about this - I think that fictionalised accounts of real people can be great novels - but I would prefer it to be one thing or the other - call him Dickens if he is meant to be Dickens, not something else but acknowledging at the end that its mostly Dickens. It just seems slightly lacking in balls to go all the way.
  • I liked the focus on the woman behind the great man. The pull of the family versus the spouse versus the public. The sacrifices that are made in the name of art. And questions about how good liberated thinking really is. How possible is it to commit to one when you are loved by many?
  • Another novel that seems to be an individuals account of their life, through time, writing wrongs and seeking understanding and forgiveness.
  • Collected quote - ‘I have to confess to a certain mute rebellion as I poured half the tea away in the potted ferns, and gave the biscuits to the dog or, when the dog refused, threw them on the fire, where they burned with a resentful glow.’
  • Just an ok read - rather longwinded, with lots of quite repetitive dialogue and nothing very striking. It read a quite a thorough piece of research, with a little speculation thrown in, but fell rather flat in the telling, which was rather disappointing seeing as it was about a key literary figure. 5 out of 10 cups of tea(image)

The Secret Scripture - Sebastian Barry


  • I call this chewy prose. I need to read it slowly, to savour it, at times to read parts aloud to (image) hear the words dissolve in the air to get their full impact. To me it’s no surprise that this is published by Faber & Faber, I associate them with the more poetic end of prose.
  • Roseanne has a nostalgic voice that I could listen to for hours. She is hypnotic and lulls me into a pleasing dreamlike state.
  • Collected quotes - ‘There was a curious skein of whiteness on her features, like a sprinkle of halfhearted snow on a roadside. Perhaps it was a powder she used. The sunlight that they day outside virtually dumped into the room had betrayed it.’ and ‘…it all gathered together like a sea, the sea of Bet, and rose up from the depths of our history, the seabed of all we were, in a great wave, and crashed down on the greying shore of myself, engulfed me, and would that it had washed me away for good.’
  • I like the duet that the two narratives create. Dr. Grene isn’t all knowing despite his power and position and Roseanne fills in the gaps for us. Although at times their voices sound rather too alike considering their difference in age and circumstance, this seems rather unlikely. There is a confessional tone, it feels like they are speaking directly to the reader. This seems quite common in Irish literature.
  • There is a gothic tone to this novel. Rat catchers, grave diggers, orphanages, asylums, ghostly phonecalls and windswept beaches. It is the second book in a row to feature a hanging.
  • The relationship between psychiatrist and patient seems a popular one - and if it’s done well it’s one I enjoy. A good example for me was 98 Reasons for Being (Clare Dudman) while one that didn’t work was The Other Side of You (Salley Vickers).
  • This would have been higher up in my 2008 Booker favourites were it not for the ending - which came so suddenly and felt so contrived as to leave me with nothing but an ‘oh’ of disappointment! 7 out of 10 falling feathers (image)