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Books to give and receive Christmas 2018

A few weeks ago the editors at Shiny New Books asked their team of reviewers (plus some friends) to reveal which book or books they’d like to give for Christmas.

I thought that was such a great idea I decided to do my own version but with a little twist. While we all enjoy giving we also enjoy the excitement of receiving. And so I asked  bloggers, publishers, authors and avid readers based in Wales what book/s they’d most like to give as a Christmas gift but what book or books they secretly hoped Santa would bring them this year.

They’ve come up with an eclectic list incorporating a literary classic to a short story collection, a ‘clean eating’ cook book and, in one case, a novel that hasn’t yet been completed…..

Helena Earnshaw: Honno Press 

Would love to give: Stranger Within the Gates by Bertha Thomas

stranger-within-the_gates“Obviously I love to give books published by Honno, and particularly from the Welsh Women’s Classics, hoping to introduce friends and family to these great women writers of the past! Stranger Within the Gates, by Bertha Thomas, is a favourite. Although written over 100 years ago, it has a contemporary appeal — it contains a witty pro-suffrage parody, as well as other sharply observed stories.

We’ve also recently brought out a new edition of The Rebecca Rioter by Amy Dillwyn, with a great new cover that makes a beautiful and interesting gift. ”


Hoping Santa will bring….

“I am torn between three books. I’m hoping for The Original Suffrage Cook Book, originally published in 1915 to help raise funds for the campaign for the vote for women. The Women’s Atlas, by Joni Seager also looks like a fascinating resource as does Y Lolfa’s Codi Llais by 14 Welsh women about what it means to be a woman in the 21st century.

“In fiction, I am hoping for Disobedience by Naomi Alderman. A bit of a well known choice, with the upcoming film, but a recent interview with the author was so moving and fascinating that I feel I need to read the book. ”

Cerian Fishlock: Publishing student

Would love to give: Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

“Of course you’d want to tailor a gift to your chosen recipient, but this is both my favourite book of all time, and the book I think everyone should read. It’s a phenomenal piece of literature, beautifully crafted, and causes you to question the basis of human nature. The Penguin Classics edition is a beautiful text, making it the perfect present for Stevenson fans and virgins alike.”

Hoping Santa will bring….

modern cook“I regularly buy myself a novel or work of fiction (thank you Waterstones for your buy-one-get-one-half-price offer), but very rarely pick up a non-fiction book for myself. Of course the New Year heralds the season of diet manuals and ‘get fit quick’ guides. Ignore those, head straight to Anna Jones’ vegetarian bibles instead. The Modern Cook’s Year and A Modern Way to Cook ignore all the jargon of current trends and offer realistic recipes which fit in with modern life — all wrapped up with mouth-watering photography.


An Edited Life by blogger Anna Newton, is an upcoming guide to getting your life in order (now available for pre-order in the UK). Whilst I’m not usually interested in social media stars turned authors, a quick peruse of Anna’s blog (The Anna Edit) will prove all the inspiration you need to overhaul your wardrobe/loft/kitchen/makeup… I could go on.”

Susan Corcoran: Blogger at booksaremycwtches

Would love to give: The Lion Tamer Who Lost by Louise Beech

“This is a dark, consuming drama that shifts from Zimbabwe to England, and then back into the past, The Lion Tamer Who Lost is also a devastatingly beautiful love story, with a tragic heart. It’s a joy to read, heart breaking and exquisite. For me, it’s her finest book to date.”

Hoping Santa will bring….

Silence of the girls“The books I secretly hope Santa brings me are Pat Barker’s The Silence Of The Girls. Having fallen deeply in love with Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles, it would be fascinating to read the story from a female character’s point of view.

The other would be A Keeper by Graham Norton. I loved his first book and really want to read this one.”




Thorne Moore: author

Albi“I’d give Albi by Hilary Shepherd, the best and most thought-provoking book I’ve read this year. It’s about real history and human nature in crisis.

I’d love to receive — from Santa, who is magical and can therefore achieve anything —volume 3 of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy, because I am itching for it, so it would make the perfect Christmas present.”




Kath Eastman: Blogger at The Nut Press

Would love to give: The Toy Makers by Robert Dinsdale

“I try and fit the book to its recipient and their interests but these are some of my go-to book gifts this year:

The Toy Makers“The Toy Makers by Robert Dinsdale is set in a toy emporium which opens in London when the first frost appears and shows how magical the imagination can be but there’s also a darkness to it as well which I loved. I think it’s a perfect read for this time of year.

“I’m giving crime fans Amy Lloyd’s The Innocent Wife which is a really impressive debut looking at a woman who campaigns for, falls for and marries a death row prisoner, only for him to be released and for her to discover that’s when life gets interesting.

“My other choice would be The Unlikely Heroics of Sam Holloway by Rhys Thomas which is about an unlikely superhero: it’s geeky, humorous, heartbreaking and refreshingly different. I’d recommend it to fans of Eleanor Oliphant and comic book heroes alike.”

Hoping Santa will bring….

“I already have more than enough unread books to keep me going over the festive period, so I’d be happy with some book tokens for Christmas to put towards some of the terrific new releases coming in the New Year.

That said, I wouldn’t say no to finding the Costa shortlisted novel The Italian Teacher by Tom Rachman under the tree, or John Boyne’s A Ladder to the Sky, both of which really appeal to me.

Megan Farr: Firefly Press and Graffeg

Would love to give: The Clockwork Crow by Catherine Fisher

Clockwork Crow“A book I would gift to all children aged 8-12, as well as their parents, is this beautifully written and magical book by Catherine Fisher. It is the perfect read over the Christmas holidays, as the story is set in a snowy Victorian mid-Wales in the lead up to Christmas Day. When orphan Seren arrives as her new home she finds that the family is in mourning as their son has been missing for a year and a day. Seren sets off with the help of an enchanted Clockwork Crow to find him in this magical story of snow and stars from a master storyteller.”


Hoping Santa will bring….

“I am very much hoping to find Middle England by Jonathan Coe and Cassandra Drake by Posy Simmonds under the Christmas tree. I recently read The Rotter’s Club and very much look forward to revisiting the characters after the financial crash of 2008, following them to the present day, and seeing what Coe makes of the Brexit fall-out. I am equally excited to read Posy Simmonds’ first graphic novel in 11 years, being a huge fan. Her graphic novels are always a delicious mix of gorgeous drawing, brilliant characters and great societal observation.”

Mantel plans to keep us waiting

Anyone who was left begging for more when they reached the end of Bring up the Bodies, is in for a lengthy wait before they’ll be able to feast on the final part of Hilary Mantel’s trilogy about Thomas Cromwell. In an interview for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) she revealed that she won’t finish writing the book until late in 2016 or even middle of 2017.

Apparently her involvement as consultant for the stage production of the Man Booker-prize winning Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies have distracted her a little though she was able to use cast members as sounding boards for some of her plot ideas. When her work on the Broadway version comes to an end this summer she’ll be taking a holiday and then planning to get back to writing in earnest. it will take her between 18 months and a year to finish the book.

Until then we’ll have to be satisfied with the few crumbs of information she’s divulged. We now know the following about Part 3:

  • It’s called The Mirror and the Light
  • It features the short reign of Jane Seymour and the long awaited birth of a male heir.
  • We will experience King Henry’s  increasingly erratic behaviour.
  • The book marks the demise of Thomas Cromwell and his disgrace

Those titbits are all we’re going to get for some time it seems but they have whetted my appetite even more. I know what’s going on my Christmas wish list for 2016.

Read the full interview here

Wolf Hall and

Sunday Salon: A new bookish adventure

sundaysalonAs we’re only a few weeks away from the end of the year, the blogosphere seems to have been very active with ‘favourite books of 2012’ articles. On my blog this week I featured two of these lists – I found them both interesting more from a perspective of what they didn’t include than what was selected.

This has been an eventful bookish week personally.  After months of inquiries that just sent me down further dead ends. I finally tracked down a book club relatively close to where I live.  There are many clubs around but they don’t advertise themselves – members join via word of mouth it seems. Our library service wanted to help but since most of the clubs are held in people’s homes, they couldn’t disclose personal phone numbers. Very frustrating. Eventually I found one based at a small independent bookshop  called Nickleby’s (which has the added advantage of course that I can browse and buy at the same time).

My first experience was on Wednesday. It was an venture into the unknown for me – I had no clue what to expect; a highly erudite discussion or a ‘Janet and John’ level of chat. It was just at the right level thanks to good preparation by the peson The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje. You can see my review here. It’s fair to say this had mixed reviews – generally most people agreed it was a book of two halves but we didn’t come to an agreement on which half was the best. I got ‘persuaded’ to nominate the March read but it wasn’t easy coming up with something on the spur of the moment. In the end we settled for Posession by A. S. Byatt (selfishly, I chose it because its on my Man Booker prize reading list) ….

And in other news……

Have finally made a start on my backlog of reviews. I want to get these finished before year end and before the memory fades too much to write anything meaningful. First up was Bring Up the Bodies which won the Man Booker prize for Hilary Mantel this year which I’d read in August when it was on the long list. It’s as good, if not better than her earlier one about Cromwell (Wolf Hall).

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel #bookreview

bodiesThe year is 1535. Thomas Cromwell has put aside his lowly origins as the son of  a blacksmith and is now chief minister and leading statesman within the court of Henry VIII.  He’s fast approaching the height of his career, having found a way for Henry to extricate himself from his childless marriage and uncovered a rich source of new income for the King through sequestration of monastic lands and buildings.

Most books featuring Cromwell concentrate on his work and achievements as lawyer and statesman. What makes Hilary Mantel’s novels about this period different is the way she reveals the man behind the titles and the legislative actions. The Cromwell she shows us, first in Wolf Hall and again in her sequel, Bring up the Bodies, is a complex character. He’s an astute business man with a thriving cloth trade with Flanders derived from relationships built during his years in that country. He’s a politician par excellence, nimbly navigating the myriad jealousies and jostlings for position amongst the gentry and aristocracy that surround the King. But in Mantel’s text he is also a loving and devoted father with a touch of humanity that extends to opening his home to the poor and needy who require food. The man who manipulates young, impressionable men into confessing they committed adultery with Henry’s new queen (Anne Boleyn) is the same man who is moved to tears when he finds the angel wings his dead daughter once wore at Christmas time.


Thomas Cromwell as portrayed by Hans Holbein

It’s that duality of character that Mantel brings to center stage in Bring up the Bodies, conveying it in a third person narrative style that simultaneously has the intimacy of a first person narrator. Often those moments of character revelation come through short comments made almost en passant.

One such passage occurs when Cromwell is despatched by Henry to see the woman he divorced (Katherine of Arragon) in order to marry Anne Boleyn. Katherine is a problem that will not go away for this royal couple – she refuses to acknowledge the validity of the divorce, refuses to give allegiance to the new queen and is a focal point for Catholic plots against Henry. they need to know whether reports she is dying are true. What Cromwell sees is a shrunken figure of a woman  swaddled in an ermine fur cape.

She is jaundiced, and there is an invalid fug in the room – the faint animal scent of the furs, a vegetal stench of undrained cooking water, and the sour reek from a bowl  with which a girl hurries away: containing, he suspects the evauated contents of the dowager’s stomach.

Noticing the ermine fur coat in which she is swathed, the pragmatic side of Cromwell’s character comes to the forefront. “The king will want that back, he thinks, if she dies.’ But almost immediately the lens is changed to show his more thoughtful nature as he wonders whether Katherine’s dreams are of the gardens of the Alhambra she left as a young girl:

….the marble pavements, the bubbling of crystal water into basins, the drag of a white peacock’s tail and the scent of lemons. I could have brought her a lemon in my saddlebag, he thinks.

Four months after I closed the book, I could still remember that passage and the way Mantel shows Cromwell’s mind leap from the wizened creature he sees in front of him to a simple action he could have taken to remind her of a better life.

Moments like this abound within the novel. For that reason alone, Mantel for me deserved to win the Man Booker Prize in 2012.

Raise a glass to the Mantel and Booker judges

It’s an astonishing achievement to win a prize like the Man Booker prize once in a lifetime. To win it twice is remarkable. To win it for two books out of a trilogy  is truly extraordinary.

But when Mantel took the stage at the Guildhall to receive her prize tonight, she was the model of graciousness that Oscar winners would do well to note and learn from. She opened with a great joke:

“you wait twenty years for a Booker prize and then two come along at once.”

And then immediately paid tribute to those who had not won and thanked the people who had believed in her and helped her to bring Bring up the Bodies to print.

She knew the stakes were staked against her – only two other authors have ever won the Booker prize twice and none of them had such a short interlude between each prize. Her final comment shows that she knows the stakes only get higher now:

“I have to go away and write the third part of the trilogy.”

The judges decision shows once again why I should never take to the Black Jack tables in Vegas. I always pick the wrong one – I kept saying for the last few months that as superb as I thought Bring Up the Bodies is, I couldn’t see the judges giving it to her just because it was the second in the series and was about the same character. Just shows how wrong I could be. But for once how the right the Booker judges got it this year.

I should also thank them for enabling me to tick another Booker prize winner of my list to be read!!

Who will win this year’s Booker Prize?

According to the bookmakers, William Hill, this year’s Man Booker prize is a neck and neck race between Hilary Mantel’s Bring up the Bodies and William Self’s Umbrella. They both come in at odds of 2:1 whereas Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis is the rank outsider.

But the outcome isn’t nearly as clear as those odds suggest. On the BBC’s The Culture Show last week, the panel members weren’t in agreement on which novelist deserved to win. While it was universally agreed Mantel’s book is as good as Wolf Hall with which she won three years ago, doubt was cast on whether it was appropriate to give the title to the second in a trilogy. The chairman of judges Peter Stothard, hasn’t ruled out the possibility, saying that if anything Mantel’s command of her narrative method is even stronger second time round. The panel also touted Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home  as a potential winner, along with  Umbrella and Alison Moore’s The Lighthouse.

Over at the Guardian, the various contributors are unanimous in not agreeing who should win. Robert McCrum acknowledges that it will be a difficult decision – he is tipping Will Self’s Umbrella but with a side bet on  The Lighthouse. But even he admits: “I say this every year: caveat emptor. With Booker, anything goes.” His fellow Guardian contributor Nicholas Wroe however, is backing Narcopolis while Sarah Crown argues in favour of Swimming Home.

The Independent seems to be backing Moore while the Daily Mail sees Umbrella as the clear favourite because of its compelling plot even though it recognises that the book doesn’t aspire to accessibility.

Across the Atlantic, this year’s award is also attracting considerable interest. For Paul Levy at the Wall Street Journal, there is no question but the prize has to go to Mantel. It would be typically ‘boneheaded’ of the judges however to pick Umbrella simply “because it is the most difficult/experimental/tricky book on the 2012 shortlist.

….one novel is so superior that only non-literary reasons could excuse their awarding the £50,000 to one of the other five. Hilary Mantel’s “Bring Up the Bodies,” a sequel to her 2009 Man Booker Prize-winning “Wolf Hall,” occupies an eminence of its own.

The sole reason possible for denying Ms. Mantel the 2012 prize would be that the judges feel it is someone else’s turn to win. It would be disgraceful, but perfectly in keeping with the perverse record of Man Booker Prize judges down the years.

Since the only one I’ve read out of the six shortlisted titles, is Mantel, I don’t feel that qualified to name my own favourite. It partly depends on whether the judges want to go for readability over inventiveness I suppose. I understand the argument against selecting Mantel but isn’t it more difficult to write a second novel about the same character and to keep the same quality?

We’ll find out soon enough I suppose!

Sunday Salon: Am I a threat to literature?

This is the week when I learned that my ramblings on this blog pose a threat to literature. Peter Stothard, editor of the Times Literary Supplement, considers people like me are undermining the status of literary criticism.

Sitting in my study, happily tapping away at the keyboard, I never dreamt I was wielding so much influence. I thought I was just sharing my own personal experience and love of reading with other similarly interested people. Stothard however believes the rise of blogs is bad for readers:

…. as much as one would like to think that many bloggers opinions are as good as others. It just ain’t so. People will be encouraged to buy and read books that are no good, the good will be overwhelmed, and we’ll be worse off.

He seems to miss the point that many bloggers don’t set them selves up to be anything other than enthusiasts. We don’t claim to have special knowledge or expertise beyond that of being the target audience for people who write and publish books. Is Stothard suggesting that readers shouldn’t share their reactions with others – so would he like to see the end of book clubs and reading circles also?  And maybe he would be happy if we stopped talking about it to work colleagues and friends over lunch? Isn’t he forgetting the fact that many books (Fifty Shades of Grey, Da Vinci Code and Harry Potter to name just a few) became best sellers based on word of mouth recommendations?

Here is the report on Stothard’s comments: .

And now for other news….

End of another week and I am still behind with posting reviews on some books I’ve read recently.  I did finally get to review a novel I read while on holiday – Shadow of the Wind.  But I’ve yet to post my comments on Bring up the Bodies which I finished about six weeks ago let alone Pure by Andrew Miller which I read last week and Northern Lights which I also finished. I’m also still behind on reading for the Classics Club- am only half way through North and South even though I am enjoying it so far. Better luck next week maybe.

Mantel’s Cromwell comes to BBC screens

The BBC announced yesterday that filming will begin next year on a six part series based on Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall.  The broadcaster has acquired the rights to the novel and the sequel Bring up the Bodies – which means they already have their eyes on another mini series further down the line.

I admit to mixed feelings about this – it’s a welcome signal that the BBC is returning to what was a core strength for many decades, producing quality drama. If they achieve the standards of their recent Hollow Crown series based on some of Shakespeare’s history plays, we will be in for a great experience.

But I can’t help feeling nervous about the project. It’s so easy to get it wrong with historical dramas especially with ones based on such a larger than life cast of characters. Judge it right and the result is mesmerising (remember the Six Wives of Henry VIII or Glenda Jackson’s Elizabeth series?) but the temptation is to treat the Tudor court like some modern day version of Dynasty (I shudder at the memory of the US series The Tudors).

The other challenge is the ease with which they can translate Mantel’s imaginative approach to the screen. Cromwell’s rise to the centre of government from his humble beginnings, and his central role in one of the most colourful of periods in British history, certainly makes for a fascinating story. But what made Mantel’s novel unique is the way she tells the story from inside Cromwell’s consciousness. Without that, Wolf Hall could easily have become just another historic drama about the period. Conveying that on screen seems nigh on impossible.

But then I’m not a tv producer so can so easily be proved wrong. I hope so..

A week of distractions

So many things going on this week.   Just keeping up with the progress of Team GB, Phelps and all the other men and women with unpronounceable names in lycra, is a challenge. There’s always something interesting just about to happen or a new drama unfolding.

On the home front my own domestic drama came to an end last night.  Twelfth Night ended its run  after 12 performances which means domestic normality will once again return to my house. I’ve been sharing it, not with Jeff but with his alter ego Sir Toby Belch for the last 3 months, trying to be patient as I hear Jeff rehearse his lines over and over. And sometimes getting roped into acting out all the other parts. But watching the final performance last night, it was clear how all the dedication to detail and the hours of rehearsal had come together.  Even the rain held off to bring the Everyman Open Air Festival 2012 to a close for this year. 

All of which meant I haven’t made that much progress with Bringing Up the Bodies – the only 2012 Man Booker longlisted novel it seems I’ll get around to reading before the shortlist is announced late September. The more I read of it though, the more I appreciate that this is meant to be taken slowly. It’s tempting to just keep reading but when I’ve hurried it, I’ve missed a lot of the subtleties. So I’ve decided to savour the moment instead of rushing to the end.

As a complete contrast, I’ve also started reading Saraswati Park by Anjali Joseph. There are some books that you only have to read two or three pages to know you’re in for a delightful experience. This is one of them. It’s set in Bombay (I seem to be reading a lot of novels set in India this year) and i the story of Ashish, a 19-year-old who goes to live with his uncle Mohan and aunt Lakshmi in Saraswati Park, a sleepy part of the city, so that he can repeat his final year in college. Mohan earns his money by writing letters and filling in official forms for those who cannot write. His days are spent  at a table outside a busy post office but his real passion is literature and and his dream is to one day write his own book.

It’s the first published novel by Joseph and won her critical acclaim as well as a few prizes. Her second novel Another Country came out last month. She’s tipped as ‘one to watch’ .

Snapshot of my week








I tore myself away from Hilary Mantel’s Bring up the Bodies to do some reading of a very different kind this week – a day by day account of the South Wales Borderers during World War 1. This was a continuation of my attempt to unravel the story behind a series of photographs he took while on service in Egypt. Apart from camel trains and mosques he also photographed a very large military funeral and what looks like the result of an attack. No-one in the family knew he had even been to Egypt – he never spoke of his experiences apparently – all my mum remembers is the medals he wore every Remembrance Day. Imagine her surprise to find out that not only had he been to Egypt, he’d also served in France and Salonika. It’s been fascinating to read these diaries kept by the battalion commander – full of details of days training with rifles that they know don’t work and days of marching through fog and snow in Salonika.

Booker Prize

On the literary front, I had yet another disappointing experience of using my local library. The day after the long list for the 2012 Man Booker prize was announced, I took the list to the library hoping to at least read a few of them before the short list gets announced late on in September.  Not only didn’t they have any of the books on the shelves, they hadn’t even ordered these for stock in any of the county library branches. So no-one in my part of Wales will be able to read what are considered to be the pinnacle of this year’s new books without having to borrow from another county.  Ok, so with budgets tight, it would be unrealistic to expect them to have all of these titles – especially those by first time authors. But it’s rather disturbing that they didn’t think a new novel by established authors like Will Self, Michael Frayn or Andre Brink would be of interest to local readers. I know they can’t buy every book published but it seems more and more of their new collection revolves around  ‘autobiographies’ by C list celebrities.

Also in my Blog…

  • The organisers of World Book Night 2013 announced this week that nominations are now open for titles to be included in the next big give away. I’ve started to put my ‘long list’ together – would love to know what titles you would all suggest.
  • More ideas came this week for books to take with me while I travel. Given the focus on London, Abe Books have put together a list of novels set in the city. I was a bit alarmed to see how few of them I have read ……..









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