The Guardian First Book Awards 2011 Shortlist Announced

The Shortlist for this years Guardian First Book Award has been announced. It is:

Pigeon English, Stephen Kelman (Bloomsbury)

The Emperor of All Maladies, Siddhartha Mukherjee (Fourth Estate)

Down The Rabbit Hole, Juan Pablo Villalobos (And Other Stories)

The Collaborator, Mirza Waheed (Viking)

The Submission, Amy Waldman (William Heinemann)

The winner will be announced in December

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Costa Book Awards Shortlists Announced

This years Costa Book Award shortlists have been announced.

For the category Novel the authors are:

Julian Barnes  - The Sense of an Ending

John Burnside – A summer of Drowning

Andrew Miller – Pure

Louisa Young – My Dear I Wanted to Tell You

For the Category of First Novel the authors are:

Kevin Barry – City of Bohane

Patrick McGuinness – The Last Hundred Days

Christie Watson – Tiny Sunbirds far Away

Kerry Young – Pao

For full details go to The Costa Book Awards website.

The winners will be announced on 4th January 2012

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Fear by Gabriel Chevallier

Fear by Gabriel Chevallier


Often compared with All Quiet on the Western Front, Gabriel Chevallier’s disturbing story of life in the trenches from a French perspective in the First World War is based on his own experiences. He was decorated for his bravery during his time in the war and this book, essentially an anti-war piece, explains how he coped with the horrific conditions soldiers on all sides faced.

Chevallier is an interesting character, perhaps slightly different from many who to write about their war experiences. He appeared to be a maverick; he didn’t like to comply, had little respect for his officers and seemed to join up to fight more out of interest than patriotism. Whether this is a feature of French soldiers, I don’t know given most books about the first and second world wars appear to be from an English or German perspective.

The book tells the story of Chevallier’s experiences right from the start of the war in 1914 where it appears the French didn’t seem to think much was going to happen and were somewhat shocked when war started, up until Armistice Day in 1918.  Although most of the seasons seemed to have been covered i.e. the blazing heat of summer and the freezing cold conditions where it was difficult not to freeze to death whilst on sentry duty, there was no mention anywhere about Christmas. I found this rather odd as this would have been a particularly poignant time for soldiers on the front and one that has been mentioned along with the very famous tale of German’s and English soldiers playing football, in many stories of the First World War. Whilst this may not have happened with French soldiers, I would have expected some mention of this time and what the soldiers did.

The core of this book is the author’s horrific tales of the sights he saw, the pains he endured and the suffering of all those around him. He somehow learned to cope with what must have been one of the most challenging environments a human being can endure.  His descriptions were visceral and don’t spare the reader in any way and helped him build a picture that explained his total fear, a fear that, when expressed to those that hadn’t been at the front lines, was disregarded or dealt with in a dismissive manner. He explained how the nurses in the hospital he was in just couldn’t believe it when he expressed how scared he was and looked at him in a negative way for expressing this fear. He also explained how letters home and visits home were upbeat and the soldiers didn’t feel that they could really say what they were going through. Propaganda was doing a very good job of keeping those away from the fighting completely in the dark about the horrors of this war and, as a result, they weren’t expecting their men to come home with tales of complete destruction, terror and gore.

At some points the incessant fighting and death did become rather tedious to read. The author was I feel reflecting the monotony and drudgery of war. Whilst the author may have initially thought it would be glamorous and he would be admired, his book reflects the day-to-day tedium of going from battle to battle, risking your life, being constantly bombarded, hungry, cold and frightened. To top it all, it went on for 4 years!

The author explained in detail his first experience of going “over the top”. This doesn’t appear to be an expression used by the French, or certainly one that hasn’t come across in translation. The complete fear, anxiety and tension are however as real as any other book I have read relating to this.  The fact that he survived this experience, albeit wounded, and then returned to service to fight again is something that is difficult to comprehend. He appears to have done this by learning how to conquer his fear. I am not sure if conquer is the word that he would use, rather it was a case that he got to the point after so much fighting and living in such a constant state of anxiety that he began not to care about living or dying. I think he learnt to not fear death and I suspect in some respects, it would have become a welcome relief from the hell he was living in.  This ability to deal with his fears leads him to greater acts of courage and probably resulted in the decorations he received.

Other than in an extract of from the preface to the 1951 edition of the book (it was first published in 1930); the author doesn’t explicitly express his opposition to war. This gives the book more impact because it leaves the reader to draw the conclusion that most right-minded people come to of the futility of spending 4 years dug into a trench in a field shooting at one another.

This was an interesting read and I particularly enjoyed learning about the First World War from the perspective of the French. There was one particular comment made by the author fairly early in the book when explaining the plight of a man who had his hands blown off that really made me think:

Never again will he be able to touch. It occurs to me then that this is perhaps the most precious of all the senses

I would highly recommend this book as an interesting perspective on the First World War but I can’t say I enjoyed it given the horrors it depicts. What is does give is an accurate description from someone who was there and it should be recognised for its honesty given when it was first published.

Recommended Reading:

If you like this book you may like:

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks

Regeneration by Pat Barker

Other Book Info:


Amazon review score: Not rated

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Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

cold comfort farm by stella gibbonsPLEASE RATE THE BOOK NOT THE POSTING

Flora Poste is a 19 year old recently orphaned young lady who decides, having inherited the miserly sum of £100 per year and no property that she has to find herself a suitable abode by appealing to the goodwill of her relatives. Whilst she undertakes the task of writing to said relatives, she lives with Mrs Smiling a rich widow with an unhealthy obsession about brassieres and an endless supply of male admirers. Mrs Smiling tries to persuade Flora that there is an alternative to her plan. She could just get a job and then stay in London. Flora however doesn’t seem keen on the idea of working for a living and instead feels that if she can get herself into one of her relatives homes, she can soon change things around and establish some order so that they adjust to her way of living rather than the other way round.

Flora soon starts to get replies and decides that the only viable option is to go and live with her Aunt Ada Doom and the rest of the Starkadders at Cold Comfort Farm in deepest, darkest Sussex. Upon her arrival she sets about civilizing her cousins and tidying things up and within a very short space of time she has packed Amos, a fire and brimstone lay preacher off on the road to preach to the masses, has arranged the marriage of Elfine and got lustful Seth a job as a film star. She continues with her mission and even manages to find time to let out the Bull much to the annoyance of the farm hands. Her toughest challenge is Aunt Ada Doom, powerful matriarch who has, up until Flora’s arrival has prevented all her children and grandchildren leaving the farm. She constantly witters on about what she saw in the woodshed ranting like a mad woman. Somehow, and Flora’s technique is never revealed, Flora manages to even persuade Aunt Doom to fly off to Paris on a world tour leaving Flora to decide to go back to London and marry.

This is a somewhat whimsical and eccentric, funny yes but annoying as well. I found Flora a rather annoying, arrogant and aloof character who was completely oblivious of her surroundings and, at times, callous but then this book is a parody so she’s supposed to be like that. Whilst those were the negatives, she was also, in comparison to her inbred cousins, a sophisticated, educated Londoner. She reminded me of a 1930′s Bridget Jones and it could be argued that she was quite gutsy but I did find her powers of persuasion rather unbelievable.

There were plenty of funny parts in the book including Flora giving Adam, an aging farm hand, a new mop and Adam treasuring it and deciding it was too good to do the dishes with. The names of the animals (feckless, aimless, arsenic to name a few) were amusing and the tales of their legs falling off! Aunt Ada Doom also had a highly appropriate name. Perhaps what makes it funny is the fact that it is such an obvious parody of DH Lawrence, Thomas Hardy, Austen and Bronte to name but a few.

It would have been nice to know what Aunt Ada Doom did see in the woodshed and whether the goat she mentioned at the end did die. We also never learnt what Flora’s rights were and what happened to her Dad in relation to the Starkadders. The fact that we didn’t was characteristic of the panto like eccentricity of the book.

The one thing that did impress me about the book was the “near future” aspect. It appears Stella Gibbons was capable of predicting the video phone and she seemed to think everyone would have their own personal aircraft. Air mail also had a different delivery method being delivered direct to the house via an aircraft!

On the whole I feel quite torn about my feelings towards this book. I didn’t like the characters but I did find it mildly amusing. Perhaps because it is seen as such a classic I was expecting something a bit more substantial rather than the whimsy I was presented with.

Recommended Reading:

If you like this book you may like:

Sons and Lovers by DH Lawrence

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

Other Book Info:


Amazon review score: 4.5 out of 5

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World Book Night 2012

World Book Night 2012 will take place on 23rd April 2012. A significant dateas it’s  Shakespeare’s birthday.

You can see the 25 titles for this year at







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Bluestockings by Jane Robinson

Bluestockings by Jane RobinsonPLEASE RATE THE BOOK NOT THE POSTING

The story of the women who fought for their right to an education and were the first to attend British universities as undergraduates, Jane Robinson pieces together the history of the “Bluestockings” from the eighteenth century.

I was surprised to find that the first “bluestocking” was a man by the name of Benjamin Stillingfleet. Stillingfleet belonged to a group of intellectuals, mainly women who met regularly in London to partake in intellectual debate and conversation. The name Bluestocking came about as the result of Stillingfleet turning up to one such meeting in a pair of knitted blue stockings. Word spread about this and the group became known and the “bluestockings”.

Through what must have been painstaking research, Robinson has managed to put together quite a detailed account of the struggles women had to get an education. There is mention of women’s wombs withering, of infertility and arguments from men that if a woman was educated she would somehow be less feminine. Even once they did make it to University, many male lecturers would not acknowledge them. The prejudice was very difficult for someone of my generation to understand and I also found it quite amusing. The sheer ignorance of men and their petty excuses as to why women could not pursue an education were beyond belief. Perhaps the most interesting fact in the book was that Cambridge University didn’t see fit to award degrees to undergraduate women until 1948! Oxford was hardly more progressive, waiting until 1920 before deciding women were worthy. They were happy to allow women to study and even take exams in their learned institutions but it was apparently too much to consider actually awarding them a degree. The biggest irony being of course that the universities were much more obliging to women during the war when all the men disappeared off to fight!

There are several accounts of hardship and real determination in the book. Robinson mentions Trixie Pearson whose mother sacrificed the family earnings to get Trixie into Oxford and pay to keep her there. In those days, that sacrifice very often paid off and Trixie went on to become a teacher enabling her bring modest prosperity to her entire family. In other cases, teachers and lecturers put their hands in their own pockets to help keep students in education rather than them having to go out to work to bring an income in for their family. Sadly, many women did drop out due to financial hardships or deaths in their families.

Getting to University wasn’t the only struggle the women had to undertake. Once there it appears life was restrictive. In the early years female students had to be chaperoned, including in lectures where male students were present. Robinson conjured up a lovely image of chaperone’s knitting needles clacking away loudly during lectures. Other rules, apart from the obvious one about not having men in their rooms, included no drinking and in some cases, no smoking. Some subjects were not considered suitable for women, usually biology or anything related to medicine and some colleges had women only dances. Despite all of this, it appears the women were willing to forego some freedoms just to experience the intellectual stimulation a university education brought. It also appears that there was a great sense of camaraderie amongst the women with late night cocoa sessions where they shared cakes and biscuits. There were some benefits: at Oxford and Cambridge, the women had the advantage of not being seen as full members of the university and hence weren’t expected to go around the town in gowns. This enabled their behaviour to be a little more relaxed in public than their male counterparts.

Whilst Robinson’s book is interesting and contains some good anecdotes about life as a bluestocking, I felt the book lacked structure. Very often it felt as if Robinson was just recounting the stories of various bluestockings without really thinking about the point she was trying to get across. I found it very strange that there was very little mention of post-graduate opportunities for women. There was some discussion about what women did after university but this was primarily focused on teaching. There must have been a route for women to undertake post-graduate studies but there was no mention of it in this book. This lack of depth was disappointing. I also found some of the accounts rather repetitive and dull.

This was an interesting book that certainly stirred some emotions in me. I was angry at the way the women were treated and the attitudes of the men but also amused by how the women dealt with it and how ignorant the men were. It certainly made me realise how things have changed and how lucky I was not to have had to battle my way to university.

Recommended Reading:

If you like this book you may like:

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer

Half of the Human Race by Anthony Quinn

Other Book Info:


Amazon review score: 4 out of 5

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The Long Song by Andrea Levy


Thomas Kinsman, a Jamaican printer/publisher persuades his Mother, July, to write about her time as slave on a sugar plantation in the early years of the 19th century.  So, we hear from July as she is now, a rather cantankerous older lady bemoaning the insistence of her son to write her memoirs and her reminiscences of a hard life as a slave.

The book starts by telling how July is born in a hut on the plantation. Her mother, Kitty, is a strong large slave who can handle herself. Her father is a white Scottish overseer on the plantation. Within a very short space of time July is taken by the plantation owner’s sister Caroline and becomes her personal slave. Caroline decides to call July Marguerite and so, not only is she taken away from her mother, she also loses her name. Kitty remains on the plantation and for a period of time watches July from the garden of the house getting glimpses of her in the window.

July’s life takes another dramatic turn during the Baptist war of 1831 when the first rebellion of the slaves took place. The plantation owner, John, goes to fight and, as a consequence of what he sees and experiences, returns to his home and kills himself. His return interrupts a romantic liaison between July, now a young woman, and a freed slave by the name of Nimrod. They hide under the bed when John returns not knowing he is about to shoot himself. The result being that when John is found dead, Nimrod and July are discovered and Nimrod is accused of murdering John. They escape but are captured in the local slave camp. Nimrod is killed and July is about to be but is rescued by her Mother, who, having heard of July’s return, has come to try to find her. On seeing July in danger, she beats July’s attacker. July is saved and returns to her duties as slave to Caroline, who now runs the plantation, and gives birth to Nimrod’s son, but Kitty is eventually put to death.

July’s son (Thomas) is given up to a local Methodist minister and his wife and brought up as one of their sons. They move to England and take Thomas with them. July doesn’t see her son again until she is much older when he returns to Jamaica and finds her.

The next major event for July is the end of slavery and, roughly at the same time the arrival of Robert Goodwin, a new overseer for the plantation. July has her freedom but remains in the service of Caroline and quickly develops a relationship with Robert. Robert comes to the plantation with a refreshing attitude towards the blacks. He is full of good intentions and believes they should be treated well. Soon, Robert realises he is in love with Caroline and struggles with this because,although a liberal, his father would not approve of him having a black wife. He decides to resolve this conundrum by marrying Caroline so that he can live in the same house as July and July becomes his mistress. Inevitably, July becomes pregnant and eventually gives birth to a girl. Caroline has become aware of the relationship between Robert and July but decides to live with it, almost as if she is willing to put up with it because she doesn’t want to lose either of them .

Robert discovers that running a plantation is a lot harder in practise than in theory and, with slavery abolished, he can no longer demand the slaves work the long hours they did previously. Very soon he is destroyed by this and the former slaves leave the plantation withdrawing their labour. This causes Robert to have a breakdown resulting in Caroline taking the decision to take Robert back to England. By this time, Caroline has met Robert and July’s daughter and deceives July on the day of their departure taking the baby with them. They leave for England and July never sees her child again.

This is effectively where July’s story ends and Thomas tells his tale, how he was brought up, how he became a printer, how he became a wealthy man and eventually found his mother and rescued her from abject poverty.  The two stories come together at the end of the book and explain why July is now telling her tale.

I really enjoyed this book, more so than “Small Island”.  July was a plucky character who remained so dignified and calm no matter what was thrown at her. The fact that she lost both her children is testament to her hardiness. How she was treated by Robert and Caroline would have broken most people but she carried on.  It was almost as if she didn’t know any different and hence thought this was how life was. Despite this, she has fun sliding on her pinafore down the wooden floors of the house, jumping into bed with Nimrod, sneaking bottles of alcohol out of the window etc.

I found Robert a rather contradictory character. I thought he was genuinely a good man but he turned into a monster in the way he treated his staff. I can’t quite determine whether his initial behaviour was a cover or front and that he didn’t believe a lot of what he said about treating blacks well. On the other hand, he was so kind to July initially that he didn’t appear to have any prejudice. Perhaps the harsh realities of trying to run a profitable plantation changed him. I suspect that there were few profitable plantations once slavery was abolished.

Caroline appeared to be oblivious to a lot of the issues surrounding slavery and those whose lives it affected. It was almost as if she felt it was irrelevant and didn’t apply to her or was just the natural order of things and hence nothing would ever change. I think she just used people for what she needed them for, regardless of their colour. It occurred to me as I sat on the beach reading this with a waiter bringing me drinks that we are all guilty of this. Does my waiter have to work unreasonable hours, does he get paid a living wage, could he be sacked for no apparent reason? I don’t know and haven’t taken the time to find out.

In some ways I felt the narration and interruptions from July as she was as an older woman telling her tale were unnecessary. The story could have been told without this but I think the purpose of this came to light at the end of the book when Thomas tells his tale and we learn that July never found her daughter. It would have been difficult to get this angle of the story without the older July narrating .

One aspect of the book that I did find interesting and fascinating was the attitude amongst the black slaves about their colour. It appeared that they also adopted a racist attitude with lighter skinned Negroes having more status and better prospects than those with darker skin. I found it incredulous that a group of people so downtrodden because of their treatment by people who felt they were better than them because of the colour of their skin could adopt the same attitudes themselves!

Levy has done an excellent job of telling an interesting, amusing, sad and historically accurate tale that kept me gripped from beginning to end. It makes you laugh out loud and also breaks your heart.

Recommended Reading:

If you like this book you may like:

Small Island by Andrea Levy

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Other Book Info:


Amazon review score: 4 out of 5

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