Cider with Rosie


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Laurie Lee has been on my bookshelf for many years, having read and loved all of his biographical tales set in Spain (As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, A Moment of War, A Rose for Winter) and bought them for a relative who lives out there. What I’d never read however, much to my family’s horror, is his first, most famous memoir; Cider with Rosie; a nostalgic trip down the Gloucestershire valley of his childhood, meeting the quintessential characters and exploring the wilderness of an age that has now almost entirely disappeared but that we mustn’t forget. Here’s why;

Lee grew up in the isolated village of Slad, in the damp, lush creases of the Cotswold hills. With six brothers and sisters raised by his mother in a cluttered little cottage, he charts his sheltered childhood, from the folds of his mother’s skirts to the wider, lustier, scarier world beyond. Although the famous Rosie of the title doesn’t make much of an appearance herself (her cameo being restricted to some steamy kisses beneath a hay wagon) Lee’s family and extended family, friends, teachers, pastor and various neighbours do; showing how a sheltered post-war community is gradually nudged ever so gently into the 21st century.

292314All those promises that people made about this beautiful novel were clearly made with confidence. This is the perfect portrait of a forgotten age and English countryside of a rawness and innocence that exists in very few places nowadays. Lee’s foundations as a poet shine through in his exquisite prose. His evocation of the seasons are some of the most brilliant I’ve read in a long long time:

‘It was world of glass, sparkling and motionless. Vapours had frozen all over the trees and transformed them into confections of sugar. Everything was rigid, locked-up and sealed, and when we breathed the air it smelt like needles and stabbed our nostrils and made                                                        us sneeze.’ [Winter]                                             p.137

‘Inside the cowsheds it was warm and voluptuous, smelling sweetly of milky breath, of heaving hides, green dung, and udders, of steam and fermentations. We carried cut hay from the heart of the rick, packed tight as a tobacco flake, with grass and wild flowers juicily fossilized within – a whole summer embalmed in our arms.’ [Summer]           p.139

Lee devotes an entire chapter to his beloved mother, whose irrepressible, haphazard figure lends brightness into every dusty corner and is one of the most lovable, selfless characters I’ve come across in a long time, raising both her own children and others from the previous marriage of a man who abandoned her. No hard feelings. Both she and her fellow honest village folk remind us that you can be rich beyond your wildest dreams yet not have two pennies to rub together. A good slice of bread and butter and a kind ear is rich enough.

The fantastical road from childhood innocence to the headiness and confusion of teenage years is universal, whatever the era, and it is this that makes Cider with Rosie a classic. There is no nastiness in this novel. Even more sinister reminiscences such as the murder of an arrogant pub-goer and a childishly hatched plan to assault a local girl (thankfully half-hearted) are written into the memoir in such a matter-of-fact, even nostalgic tone that the edge is taken away and the reader is left feeling suitably yet comfortably confused.

As the twentieth century beckons and the young folk of Slad escape in the cars and charabancs that start to rumble down the lanes, I started to feel a little sad myself for the world left behind. A world of hazy woodland, log fires and magic; one I would sorely like to return to myself.

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Top Ten Books That Were Hard For Me To Read


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Hurray! Back on track with the old blog with yet another glorious Top Ten Tuesday to perk up the dud end of the week courtesy of The Broke and the Bookish. This one is a little negative (and very similar to this one from May) but, you never know, it may well persuade me to have a re-read and see if it all clicks together a little better. Let’s face it folks, however much we read and however bright we may be, much to our dismay we can’t always sail through our books, even those we thought we’d love. Here are my current top ten tricky ones:

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1. The Barefoot Queen; Ildefonso Falcones  – this took one serious weekend of stealth reading to finish, topped off by me scrawling ‘too long!’ in pen on the front! (I know, I was that frustrated). A massively corny, swashbuckling read that I judged from the cover from the off….I should have considered myself warned.

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2. Misfortune; Wesley Stace - a rather unfortunate tale that, although hugely quirky and thought-provoking on the whole gender-identity front, lost its way in the last quarter and was almost impossible to finish.

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3. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo; Stieg Larsson - Pre-Relish days I impulse-bought the whole Larsson trilogy, so sick I was of people harping on about it. Although this is an easy ready, I found it boring in the extreme and simply didn’t care. Needless to say I haven’t read the others. Yawn. Bye bye girl-with-no-face.

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4. The Drought; J G Ballard - The book against which all Manchester Book Groupers judge their boredom.

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5. Beloved; Toni Morrison - I don’t know why I found this (widely considered) modern classic so hard to read. The prose isn’t particularly difficult and it is ground breaking in its gut-wrenching portrayal of slavery. However it is, quite rightly, a devastating read and really dragged me down. Make sure you’re in a happy place when you read this one.

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6. The Teleportation Accident; Ned Beauman - a book so baffling, silly and smart-arse that, frankly, I couldn’t even be bothered to try and understand Beauman’s madcap world.

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7. The Robber Bridegroom; Eudora Welty - primarily a tricky dialect barrier but a wonderful book and brilliant writer all the same.

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8. Hard Times; Charles Dickens - I love you Charles but oh Stephen Blackpool, you and your faux northern accent were the bane of my life and a huge interruption to an altogether perfect novel.

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9. The Picture of Dorian Gray; Oscar Wilde - finally finished this classic this year after starting three times and failing miserably. I think the effected posh boy malarkey put me off a little. God only knows why because Wilde clearly is a master of suspenseful, psychological fiction.

And for the boyfriend (of ‘Seed’s Reads’ fame) >>>>>>

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10 The Count of Monte Cristo; Alexandre Dumas - My other half has been taking part discreetly in Literary Relish for years (see: ‘Seed’s Reads’ in the right hand column), being an avid book lover himself. His personal Everest has always been this doorstop of a book, a rip-roaring adventure I must pick up myself one day….

Five bookish reasons to love the autumn


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Autumn (or, as you American folk prefer to say; ‘Fall’) is my absolute favourite time of year hands down. Unflattering clothes and sweltering offices are instantly replaced by cosy knits, delicious drinks and the very real need to sit in front of the fire with a wee dram to warm up. This time of the year is when our countryside is at its most beautiful, as the vibrant heather on the hillside fades and the ground and trees start to turn all russetty and lovely. I love no better excuse than to dig out my wellies and jumpers once again and with a nip in the air there’s of course no better excuse than to curl up with a good book. I have an inkling many of you are also fans of this time of year so here are my top five bookish reasons to welcome the wind and rain:

1. More excuses to readGeorgios_Jakobides_Girl_reading_c1882

Again, not that I need any excuses to indulge in a bit of reading time but – the evenings and morning are darker, making it much easier to justify staying under the covers with your nose in a book. The weather is more frequently the enemy of outdoor pursuits equaling more time with the sofa and bookshelves. A book is also a natural companion to a delicious brew, which I drink far more of when it’s chilly.

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2. The antidote to writer’s block

The boyfriend and I inevitably end up so busy with random social/sporty events in summer (which are great fun, don’t get me wrong!) that it leaves very little time to be productive. The pressure to be out in the world is oh so very strong and goddamit it totally hampers my blog upkeep/general creative vibe/speaking with all you lovely people.

3. Awards and stuff 5843148183_b30094c1cb

As you know, I’m really am not one to focus my reading life around what the next hot book is or what has won all the prizes (more often than not I’m massively disappointed. See: The Tiger’s Wife) but, I do adore a good book list to drool over and what can be more interesting than the long and shortlists milling around at this time of year? The Guardian first book award, The Man Booker, The Costa…..I’m excited already (though firmly NOT making any guesses as to nominations/winners, etc).

clown-238527_6404. Getting spooky

I really wished we celebrated Halloween over here in a more celebratory American fashion because lordy lord would it be awesome. I love fancy dress (which I never get to do) and I love spookiness and the perfect accompaniment is a nice scary book, of which there are many. I recently updated My Independent Bookshop to include some slightly creepier reads for Autumn (if you’d like to stop by and make a purchase!) and I’m getting more and more excited about what I’ll read this Halloween. Any recommendations? I inevitably end up reading M R James every year (not a bad choice of course but I should mix it up a little…).

5. The Autumn issue of Slighty Foxedphoto (42)

I am totally obsessed but yet again I found myself totally overexcited at the autumn arrival of Slightly Foxed and its literary delights and am already (even though I haven’t finished this one yet) getting distracted at the thought of the winter edition. I recently bought their beautiful edition of John Hackett’s I was a Stranger for Daddy Relish; a poignant memoir of the commander’s experiences in Arnhem during WWII (all the more poignant for a certain family connection and the 70th anniversary of the battle this year) which I’m keen to read myself. I hope to develop my colourful collection of Slightly Foxed Editions well into 2015!

The Guest Cat


The Guest Cat Takashi Hiraide

Darron Birgenheier

After reaching the heights of bestsellerdom in both France and its native Japan, poet Takashi Hiraide’s tantalising novella; The Guest Cat, has finally been translated into English for us all, courtesy of Eric Selland. Having become rather a fan of beautifully written Japanese fiction over the past couple of years (see Yoko Ogawa, whose latest story collection; Revenge, I simply can’t wait to read) and being a life-long cat aficionado, this slim volume; the tale of an oddball couple who unwittingly befriend the neighbour’s cat, warmed the cockles on the basis of the blurb alone.

Our unnamed, thirty-something couple live in a rented cottage somewhere in the vast suburbs of Tokyo. Working as copyeditors from their quirky little home, their quiet, somewhat mundane lifestyle is suddenly transformed with the appearance of the neighbour’s cat in their back garden. Delicate, lithe and charming, this beguiling feline quickly forges a place for herself in the hearts of the pair, who nickname her ‘Tinkerbell’, and await her arrival at their door anxiously everyday, with the animal soon warming and transforming their everyday lives into something truly special, something all animal lovers and pet owners will no doubt identify with.

The rented cottage, though not their own, is a special place. Light and airy, all tatami mats and sliding doors, it has a strange, small window in the kitchen that projects a reversed17574849 image of people in the adjacent alleyway onto the wall for contemplation. The garden is sumptuous and wild, the creatures within it characterful and both project a calm, healing atmosphere which becomes so very valuable to the pair.

It may seem easy to dismiss this sentimental story as the domain of the cat-lover only. In reality, this is a novella whose scope spans far beyond that of feline appreciation and plumbs the depths of human emotion for more. With great simplicity and delicacy, Hiraide subtly explores the human capacity for love, our need to connect with the living world around us and the deep grief that can occur when that connection is seemingly lost forever.

Although I found Selland’s translation a little jarring and intrusively ‘translated’ at times, this slight clumsiness added to the lovely oddness that attracts me to a lot of Japanese fiction, perhaps reflecting a certain way of living and thinking that is alien to me in all my Englishness. This isn’t a book for plot-lovers but one for simple beauty. That the author is an acclaimed poet will come as no surprise and it is this poetry that allows us to suppress our logic and our assumption that this couple clearly have some serious issues that, rather than addressing, they instead choose to lavish upon their ‘guest’. Disquieting, metaphorical stuff indeed.

Top Ten Book Characters That Would Be Sitting At My Lunch Table


Gilian-Anderson5_2063010iSo I’m cheating a bit with this week’s Top Ten Tuesday, taking the ‘Back to School’ topic from last week that I missed instead that I thought would be far more interesting. Who would be my top lunch companions from the world of literature? Not sure these folk would gel that well together but we’ll have a go …. (thanks to The Broke and The Bookish as always!)

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1. Miss Havisham (Great Expectations, 1860) – Sure, she’s massively weird and possibly even a little whiffy but I do think she’d be mad fun at a dinner party. Cobwebs aside.

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2. Atticus Finch (To Kill a Mockingbird, 1960) – Top lawyer and all around nice guy, there’s a lot to be learnt from Mr Finch. Ooo, to clerk him would be an honour.

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3. Thomas Cromwell (Wolf Hall, 2009) – Bit of a cheat since he isn’t strictly a literary character but Hilary Mantel leads the way for us to know the magnificent historical character just that little bit better, and I’m hugely grateful for it.

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4. Pop Larkin (The Darling Buds of May, 1958) – Perfect chap for a tipple and a good spread. Pop Larkin knows how to throw a good party.

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5. ‘Moira’ (The Handmaid’s Tale, 1985) – feminist literary heroine :)

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6. Aunt Augusta (Travels with My Aunt, 1969) – wacky, glorious Aunt Augusta is an absolute diamond and sets the perfect example to her dull nephew Henry with her zest for life.

smudgeroon-27. Behemoth (The Master and Margarita, 1966) – this bewildering book is memorable for a variety of reasons, not least this gun-toting black cat.

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8. Boris (The Goldfinch, 2013) – another character with an irrepressible lust for life. Theo’s best friend Boris brings a much needed sense of wonder and danger to this story.

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9. Jenny (Frog Music, 2014) – based on a real person, Jeanne Bonnet is a typical San Franciscan quirk, with a mean sense of humour and a penchant for frogs.

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10. Holly Golightly (Breakfast at Tiffany’s, 1961) – Do I need to explain this one? Glamour, guts, glitz, she’s got the lot.

To eBook or not to eBook


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Javier Candeira

However you might feel about the rise and rise of the eReader, a phenomenon we’ve only experienced over the past couple of years, there is surely something thrilling about witnessing such a potentially seismic shift in our lifestyle, technology and the way we read and live our lives.

Not everyone feels so positive about it of course, I for one have, until recently, sat firmly in the camp of the non believers, staunchly refusing to accept any of the potential benefits and basically internally turning my nose up at anybody who tried to convince me otherwise. For me, eBooks were a soulless way of exploring the literary world, one that could prove devastatingly destructive to an already fragile world, with the death of the independent book shop an unsurprising fact of modern commercial life and even the downfall of our best-loved chain stores threatening, and even in some cases, becoming a reality (see: Borders Group).

But was this assumption true? From the start there were always benefits to having such a device. If you travel, you could take your much-loved library along with you with ease (apart from one bonkers book lover I know all to well…), if you’re physically incapacitated in any way they are lightweight and easy to use and, if you’re simply just stuck for something to read, the literary world is at your fingertips should you be lucky enough to have an internet connection. We all knew the drill. But was this convenience worth forgoing our paperbacks and potentially selling our soul to the A-monster?

The truth is, despite all this paranoia, the electronic ‘takeover’ simply hasn’t **touch wood** been the total obliteration we all imagined with horror. Although selling more overall than physical books, following a dramatic rise to lofty heights, US eBook sales have actually leveled out since 2012. Here in the UK, although eBook sales rose significantly last year, print books still came out on top, holding three-quarters of the market. Although Tim Waterstone’s recent comments may seem decidedly overconfident, perhaps this traditionally ‘stiff-upper lip’ attitude is what the industry needs to maintain the balance.

This is all, of course, a tired debate and one I’m sure you’re all too sick of hearing, but one reason why I’ve held off for so long on putting my twopenneth in is that, in my sheer militancy, it simply wasn’t relevant to me six months ago. Now, having been bequeathed an eReader (come on, I could still never bring myself to actually BUY one), I find an increasing number of publishers who, logically, prefer to email ARCs over rather than footing the bill of a print copy and also, let’s face it, my relationship will not stand another backpacking trip across the Himalaya with ten books in tow… It seems I’ve also managed to get over my general aversion enough to simply sink into whatever eBook I might be reading, rather than be blindsided by the soulless format and lack of delectable cover and smell.

It all feels rather positive really. In the world of iPads and 3D printers, the digitalisation of books was always going to be a logical step sideways. Rather than fighting against this alteration in the increasingly fast-paced, fast-fingered way in which we live our lives, traditional bookshops seem to be wisely embracing change, with chain stores like Waterstones very wisely placing an eReader stand amongst its piles of paperbacks. I’ve also noticed how notably prettier newly published paperbacks seem to be these days, capitalising on the major advantage they have over their modern cousins; i.e. the look and feel of the thing, a factor that makes book shopping such a joy (rather than scrolling down a list of titles). Can the two live side by side? I’d certainly like to think so. In fact, there is train of thought that suggests that these devices could actually encourage none-readers to pick up the original model. Wishful thinking? I certainly hope not.

All the same, I couldn’t quite resist adding this sarky advert, courtesy of Ikea ;):

The Fair Fight


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I really am trying to widen my reading horizons at the moment. After listening to Simon and Thomas‘ latest The Readers podcast on nonfiction, which I related to much more than I thought I would, it really hammered home the huge gap in my reading this year. Apart from the odd classic I desperately try to cram in, the majority of what I pick up could broadly be classed as ‘historical fiction’ of some kind. Although there is truly nothing better in my mind than a beautifully written, evocative tale that sweeps you away to an entirely different era, this is my naughty comfort zone, and one that I certainly haven’t solved, but thoroughly basked in this month by indulging in Anna Freeman’s quirky new novel; The Fair Fight.

Set in the mansions, brothels and mucky bars of 18th century Bristol, The Fair Fight tells the tale of Ruth; a young, impoverished girl who, due to her less-than-perfect looks and hard-headed nature, forges a name for herself as a female pugilist, backed and bought by the mysterious Mr Dryer. After a twisted fight leaves her battered and bruised beyond recognition, her patron drops her cold, moving on with his prospects towards her burly yet kindhearted husband, Tom; a venture for boxing titles that carries great risk for them all.

Split into three narrative voices; that of Ruth, Mr Dyer’s wife; Charlotte, and young fop George Bowden, we are afforded the opportunity to peek into the lives of people at every level of society at the time, witnessing predicaments as wide as George’s taboo passion for his boarding school roommate Perry and the alcoholism and deep-rooted apathy of a small-pox-scarred upper class woman, a woman whose boredom is finally eased by the arrival of the two young boxers at her country home.

22430677Despite my misgivings about the depth and breadth of my reading habits at the moment, there is nothing more enjoyable than a well-written, researched, quirky bit of historical fiction and this is no exception. Inevitable comparisons will be drawn with the likes of Sarah Waters but such sweeping comments do annoy me a tad. This is a hugely entertaining, unique story in its own right and gives us a modern girls yet more literary heroines to gaze at admiringly. I would be lying if I said I hadn’t put my fists up myself in the bathroom mirror once or twice whilst reading this in imitation of the feisty, potty-mouthed pugilist.

Although I sometimes failed to see the point of George’s self-serving narrative, both Ruth and Charlotte are admirable, memorable characters, allowing us a true glimpse of female 18th century life at both ends of the spectrum. The contrast between Ruth’s poverty yet relative freedom of thought and spirit in contrast with the prison Charlotte finds within the lush walls of her sitting rooms certainly gives us food for thought and their spunk and vivacity both buoyed me up. There are no Disney princesses here; wonky teeth and scarred skin bring these very real characters to life in earnest.

With the varying narratives keeping the novel fresh and moving swiftly along, like all the best historical fiction, this story is littered with seemingly accurate period detail, colour, verve and grit that will find you talking like a Bristolian in no time. Despite all the ‘culls’, ‘pugs’ and ‘bifs’ a girl could ever want, the plot can seem a little sluggish at times, but this is nothing a good cat fight can’t cure…