Tag Archives: Canongate

Autumn Reading Round-Up, part 1.

Jeezo, is it November already?! I’m quite behind on my reviewing and didn’t seem to notice the time flying by. I’ve read some great books over the past couple of months and even though I don’t plan to write a full review of them, I still wanted to write down some thoughts. Here’s the first batch…

colm-toibin-the-testament-of-maryThe Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín
I love Colm Tóibín. I loved his book Brooklyn and listened to a brilliant interview on the Guardian Books podcast which really brought the novel alive. The Testament of Mary was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize this year (which was won, in the end, by The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton). It’s a novella, a short little book that is more a monologue than a story as such. Everyone knows the story of the Crucifixion, but no one has really given Mary a voice before. I thought this book was very evocative, and perhaps it deserved more time than I gave it (I hurried through it all in one go one Saturday morning). The time and the place felt real and you really got a sense of the pain and miscomprehension Mary felt watching her son grow from boy to man to Son of God, into someone she could barely recognise. Part of me thinks this book went over my head a little bit, as so many people I’ve spoken to have thought it was wonderful. One to revisit and spend more time savouring, I think.

the-shining-girls-book-cover-2The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes
I bought this book as I thought the idea of a time-travelling serial murderer being hunted down by the one victim who managed to get away sounded great. It was such an interesting idea and there were parts of it that I really enjoyed, the murderer Harper was intensely creepy, the house he lived in shifted and changed and spurred him on to kill more ‘Shining Girls’, and the stories of the murders were quite harrowing. The story was clearly well-researched and the Boston setting from the Depression era to the nineties changed and evolved. There was an intricacy to the plot, with clues and symbols dotted throughout the text, linking the women and the different times and places. Despite that, I was overall pretty disappointed by the novel as I found the main character Kirby (the one who got away) a little irritating and I found the love interest to be utterly pointless – it just didn’t serve the plot at all. This could have been a great book but the narrative featuring Kirby wasn’t as strong as the narrative with Harper and that really let it down as about half of the book was dedicated to each of them.

may we be forgivenMay We Be Forgiven by A. M. Homes
This book won the Women’s Prize for Fiction this year (also up were Life After Life by Kate Atkinson which I loved and will talk about in my audio round-up still to come). The action of May We Be Forgiven centres around one man, Harold, who is thrown in at the deep end when his brother is involved in an accident, his marriage breaks down and he has to look after his brother’s family. I don’t want to say too much more and give the story away, as the story was pretty crazy. It keeps you on your toes and the storyline goes down unexpected routes, involving family betrayals, adoption of an orphan and an elderly senile couple, trips to Disneyland, a gay love affair between a teacher and pupil, and a covert criminal rehabilitation scheme. It sounds mad when you write it down like this, but it works. There is something uplifting about the novel, in the way that Harold manages to pull together a family of sorts after his own have come undone, and the characters begin to find peace after some pretty traumatic events. I’ve heard that A.M, Homes earlier novel This Book Will Save Your Life is even better so I will look forward to reading that at some point soon.

crimson petalThe Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber
I have been meaning to read this book for soooo long. Ever since I saw the BBC TV adaptation and loved it, and then I started working at Canongate this still gleamed down at me from my bookshelf. I absolutely loved it, and it was just the type of thing I was looking for, a long weighty Victorian novel to get stuck into as winter starts to set in. I knew the story already but very much enjoyed the novel, it is the way the story is told that makes it so special, the way the narrator invites you in, whispering lasciviously in your ear and letting you peek through the keyholes into the underbelly of Victorian life that society tried so hard to keep hidden. The world that Faber creates is wonderful, bringing to life all of the sights and smells of all parts of London. The wordly-wise and smart Sugar (the prostitute at the centre of the novel) is an unforgettable character, and the innocent and dreamy Agnes (the wife of the man who hires Sugar as his live-in concubine) equally so. I’d also highly reccommend the BBC TV adaptation as it was wonderful too, and quite true to the novel.

the appleThe Apple by Michel Faber
I rattled through this the couple of days after I finished The Crimson Petal and the White, as I wanted to know more about what had become of the characters. There aren’t any huge revelations, just a few little teasers and these short stories are a pleasing way to dip back into the Crimson Petal world if you’ve been missing it. I’m looking forward to reading Faber’s first novel Under the Skin very soon – there’s a film coming out of it next year starring Scarlett Johansson which has been getting very good reviews!

I’ll have the next lot up tomorrow. What have you all been reading this autumn?



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Quick Book Review: Pereira Maintains by Antonio Tabucchi


Pereira Maintains, a novel by Italian writer Antonio Tabucchi, may be slight in size but it is certainly big on impact. It’s one of those novels that, even though not a lot happens during the course of the novel, you get really drawn in to and in which the characters just seem very real.

It’s set in Lisbon in the late 1930s, when Dr. Pereira begins the task of editing the cultural pages on the small newspaper the Lisboa. He has the idea of writing advance obituaries for prominent writers of the time and enlists the help of a young man Monteiro Rossi after reading an article written by him on death which left him very affected. He lets himself in for much more than he bargained for, compelled to support Rossi in a world that is beginning to feel the effects of the Spanish Civil War and the coming of the Second World War, and which imposes consequences on those who try to oppose the changes.

I read this book a few weeks ago now but it has stayed with me. I know it is set in Portugal before the Second World War but I feel that Dr. Pereira is alive somewhere, if not in body then in spirit. The spirit of a man quietly questioning what is going on around him, wondering if he has the courage to stand up to it all. I actually want to pick this book up and start reading it again. I feel that in this country so much great literature passes us by, that we only get a small selection of foreign fiction. Perhaps I’m not looking hard enough – I’ll definitely be looking to read more translated fiction in future as this book has reminded me of why I love it so much!


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World Book Night 2013: April 23rd


It’s World Book Night tonight so I’ve written a little post on being a giver for the website of publisher Canongate Books, where I am lucky enough to work. I’ll be giving away the wonderful memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson, an author who I greatly admire and one who has had an incredibly interesting life. I’m feeling nervously excited about being a giver, and my plan at the moment is to hand copies of my book out to people on the streets of Leith as that’s where I picked up my books. I’m hoping that this weather continues into the evening – rain showers have been making me nervous that I’ll be trying to hand out soggy books later on! Fingers crossed, and I’ll let you all know how it goes.

The lovely editions of Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? for World Book Night 2013

The lovely editions of Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? for World Book Night 2013

I think the project is such a wonderful idea, a way of encouraging those who don’t read regularly to read something different and hopefully inspire them to discover different books. I love the special World Book Night editions that have been created as not only do they include the book in full, but also excerpts from other books by the writer, a poem on the back inside cover, and an excerpt from a book recommendation from the author themselves.

Jeanette Winterson’s choice is May We Be Forgiven by A.M. Homes. It’s on the shortlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction this year and is a book I would love to read – duly added to my Wish List!

If you want to find out more, you can read my blog post here.


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Book Review: The Sea Road by Margaret Elphinstone (A Re-Reading)

The Sea Road

A few weeks ago, we had our annual staff conference at Canongate Books and one of our assignments was to pick a ‘Gem from the Vault’ – this was loosely described as a book from Canongate’s backlist that you love and want to remind people about. I poured over my bookshelves, looking at the spines for that little red door emblem, or the older one, a big C, at the bottom of all the Canongate titles I own.

I stumbled upon The Sea Road by Margaret Elphinstone and decided that it would be my Gem and set about re-reading it. I first read it at university, in fact, I think it may have been one of the first novels I actually studied there. I was lucky enough to have Margaret Elphinstone as a lecturer in Creative Writing, and there was something so exciting to be reading a book written by someone I had actually met and was being taught by. So interesting to listen to what she was saying and to read her book simultaneously, looking out for all of the techniques and narrative styles that she discussed.

The Sea Road is the story of a real life woman, Gudrid Thorbjornardóttir, whose tale had been told as part of The Vinland Sagas, Icelandic sagas describing the exploration of the Americas in the 10th century by the Norse people. What Elphinstone does is give voice to Gudrid and to tell her tale in a way that draws you into her history and brings an ancient story to life.

The tale begins in Rome, where a young Icelandic monk has been asked by a cardinal to transcribe Gudrid’s tale to shed some light on her experiences with ghosts and spirituality. The tale that follows covers so much more than that, beginning with Gudrid’s childhood in Iceland where she was raised by Halldis, the local apothecary, to her travels to Greenland and Vinland, with her first husband Thorstein and then her second husband Karlsefni.

I love the narrative of this book, as Gudrid tells her story to Agnar, it feels like she is talking to you, the reader, as well. The story of her life is never straightforward and is often invaded by thoughts about the present, or even events that happened long after the ones she is speaking about. It is really interesting to see how on looking back at a life, it is difficult to think of events a linear way. Events split by many years can seem more related than those that happened on consecutive days, and it is always hard to look back at a specific objectively time without everything that has come after seeping in and declaring its presence. It’s almost as if time (to humans at least) is not linear; it is a web of moments in a life, not minutes or days.

The story is magical, and weaves in supernatural forces, as well as covering Gudrid’s conversion to Christianity. The ghosts of the past and the gods that she used to worship haunt her though, and one of the most affecting passages in the book is at the death of her first husband, Thorstein, when Gudrid battles with the ghosts of lost souls. I loved this supernatural element to the book and it gave a sense of perspective to the seclusion that the people felt in their exploration of new lands and their need for gods to guide them and bless them on the seas and the land.

Agnar talks to Gudrid but we never hear his voice except in the preface and epilogue; it is not his story that is important as we hear Gudrid’s replies to him. She is the central character, the one who needs a voice. What is interesting about her tale is that sometimes there are things that she can’t say, the italicised passages that we get in the book seem like the voice of the gods (or a god), looking down on all that is happening and giving us a seemingly objective view. Our memory of our lives is never comprehensive and sometimes we need a helping hand to fill in the gaps.

I remember when I read The Sea Road all those years ago at the beginning of uni that I was drawn into this tale. I always loved stories to do with Vikings and this one transported me to a similar place, of sea travellers and settlers, living off the land and trading with people from all over. It almost recalled the inquisitiveness of primary school days, when history feels new as you haven’t discovered it before and its foreignness is all quite exciting. I really enjoyed reading this book again and I would love to read more of Elphinstone’s books. I’ve been directed towards Voyageurs as my next port of call – duly added to the wish list!

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January 2013 Review – and some notes on reading advanced book proofs


For me, I think January has been quite a fruitful reading month. I may not be quite as voracious as other books bloggers but I’m pleased with how I’m doing. I always feel so behind as I don’t read as much as others and I need to keep reminding myself that it’s not a competition! This month, I finished reading Gone Girl (which I’ll discuss next week after I’ve met up with the book club), I finally read Pride and Prejudice, and I have read two advanced proof copies of books from my work – A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki and The Crane Wife by Patrick Ness.

I’m a bit loath to review the proof copies on my blog – part of this is that it doesn’t seem right to review books that haven’t been released yet (A Tale for the Time Being will be out in March and The Crane Wife isn’t out until April), the other part being that I don’t want anything to bias my book reviews other than my own personal views upon reading them.

So I suppose this is just a note to say that I will keep tracking any proofs I read for my work on my Books 2013 page (I will note this alongside it), but I probably won’t write a review of them here. I may still occasionally write reviews of backlist titles by Canongate though I will try and keep this blog for my own personal reading.

On to February and what I will be reading – I’ve started reading Wuthering Heights (which I already have mixed feelings about) and I’m hoping to also finally get to grips with Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. I’ll hopefully manage to fit in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins too. Other than that I have no plans as yet and shall wait to see what whims betake me!

What have you been reading in January? And is there anything you’re looking forward to reading in February?


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Book Review: The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng

Publisher: Myrmidon
Selected Edition: Paperback
ISBN: 978 1 78211 017 0
Published: 2012
No. of Pages: 348
Price: £6.99


The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng came as a breath of fresh air. I feel like my mind had been clouded, over-populated by reading submissions at work, many of which just could not hold my attention. And then I started to read this, the Man Booker Prize Shortlisted second novel of Malaysian writer Tan Twan Eng…

The prose is beautiful from the first page until the last, sweeping the reader up into the Cameron Highlands, an area of Malaysia (known as Malaya in the time the novel is set) filled with tea plantations and forbidding jungle. Teoh Yun Ling, a recently retired judge, returns to Yugiri, the garden owned and crafted by the former gardener to the Emperor of Japan, Nakamura Aritomo. During the Second World War, and the Japanese occupation of Malaya, Yun Ling had been captured by the Japanese and held in a labour camp along with her sister Yun Hong. Yun Hong does not survive, and her memory and the love that she had for Japanese gardens drives Yun Ling to Yugiri, as she wants Aritomo to design a garden in honour of her sister. The book flashes back and forth between the present day and the past, Yun Ling’s return to Yugiri, and the first time she was there and how she became Aritomo’s apprentice.

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Book Review: The Haunted Book by Jeremy Dyson

I read this book in the week before Halloween, and I think it was the perfect time to read it. The onset of longer nights and a good scary book to make you want to stay curled up inside. I work in a building that is supposedly haunted and after reading The Haunted Book I did not relish being the first into work on a dark pre-clock change October morning. But don’t let that put you off…

Jeremy Dyson’s latest, The Haunted Book, is billed as fiction/non-fiction. The book begins as a series of stories about paranormal phenomena, strung together by the recollections and thoughts of Dyson who loved reading haunted and ghoulish tales when he was younger. It becomes a book within a book within a book that eventually shrouds you in blackness as you become part of the story. Intrigued?

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