Clearing the Decks: The First Introductions for 2012

Last year I decided that I needed to let go of some of my books .

There are so many wonderful books in the world, so many wonderful books still to come that I want to only hold on to the very best. The books that I want to pick up again and again, the books inspire an emotional reaction whenever I see or think about them.

So I selected a hundred books from the ridiculous number that I had unread. Books I wanted to read but probably didn’t need to keep. Those books went into my home library, to be read or rejected, and then passed on for others to read.

Forty books left the premises last year, so I’m adding forty more for 2012.

I realised when I chose them that I was getting closer to my goal: having the books I wanted to keep on shelves, and reading books that I wanted to read but not keep promptly before letting them go.

But I’m not there yet.

I’m introducing the books ten at a time. Do let me know if I have a book that you’ve loved and I’ll try to make it a priority. Or a book that you’ve hated and I should think twice about.

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Who Saw Him Die? by Sheila Radley

Cuthbert Bell, the village drunk, has been killed by Jack Boodrum in a road accident. In unravelling Jack’s and Cuthbert’s past, Inspector Quantrill and Sergeant Hilary Lloyd uncover secrets that shatter the peace of the little Suffolk town.

I picked this one up a couple of weeks ago. A charity shop had three books for a pound. There was one I wanted, one my fiance wanted, and so I looked for a third. This was the one that caught my eye.

Mother Love by Domini Taylor

When Angela Turner marries Kit Vesey she is drawn into a web of lies and deceit, with horrific results for her and her family. For Kit’s mother, Helena, is divorced from her husband, Alex, a prominent conductor, and Kit has been leading a grotesque double life … It is only when Alex is knighted that Helena comes to realise the extent of Kit’s betrayal and the rage of an abandoned wife and neglected mother is unleashed …

A very tatty copy appeared in a bargain bin and it reminded me of the tv series, so I had to pick it up.

Tom Brown’s Body by Gladys Mitchell

When an unpopular teacher at a private boy’s school is found murdered, only Mrs. Bradley can solve the mystery in this classic crime caper from the redoubtable Gladys Mitchell.

I read one book by Gladys Mitchell years ago and I always meant to read more but I never did. So when this appeared in the art gallery book sale for less than the price of a library reservation it seemed sensible to buy it. But as Gladys Mitchell wrote so many books I daren’t keep it after reading in case I’m tempted to start a collection!

Hothouse Flower by Lucinda Riley

As a child Julia Forrester spent many idyllic hours in the hothouse of Wharton Park estate, where her grandfather tended the exotic flowers. So when a family tragedy strikes, Julia returns to the tranquility of Wharton Park and its hothouse. Recently inherited by charismatic Kit Crawford, the estate is undergoing renovation. This leads to the discovery of an old diary, prompting the pair to seek out Julia’s grandmother to learn the truth behind a love affair that almost destroyed Wharton Park. Julia is taken back to the 1940s where the fortunes of young couple Olivia and Harry Crawford will have terrible consequences on generations to come. For as war breaks out Olivia and Harry are cruelly separated . . .

I loved ‘The Girl on the Cliff’ and so I picked up this one too. But I passed that book on and so I think I must let this one go once I’ve read it as well.

The Hidden Child by Camilla Läckberg

Crime writer Erica Falck is shocked to discover a Nazi medal among her late mother’s possessions. Haunted by a childhood of neglect, she resolves to dig deep into her family’s past and finally uncover the reasons why. Her enquiries lead her to the home of a retired history teacher. He was among her mother’s circle of friends during the Second World War but her questions are met with bizarre and evasive answers. Two days later he meets a violent death. Detective Patrik Hedström, Erica’s husband, is on paternity leave but soon becomes embroiled in the murder investigation. Who would kill so ruthlessly to bury secrets so old? Reluctantly Erica must read her mother’s wartime diaries. But within the pages is a painful revelation about Erica’s past. Could what little knowledge she has be enough to endanger her husband and newborn baby? The dark past is coming to light, and no one will escape the truth of how they came to be…

I’ve borrowed all of Camilla Läckberg’s other books from the library, but there was a long queue for this one and so when I saw a copy in a charity shop I grabbed it. Which doesn’t make too much sense, because I would have reached the front of the library queue by now and I haven’t picked up my copy.

The House at Midnight by Lucie Whitehouse

When Lucas inherits Stoneborough Manor after his uncle’s unexpected death, he imagines it as a place where he and his close circle of friends can spend time away from London. But from the beginning, the house changes everything. Lucas becomes haunted by the death of his uncle and obsessed by cine films of him and his friends at Stoneborough thirty years earlier. The group is disturbingly similar to their own, and within the claustrophobic confines of the house over a hot, decadent summer, secrets escape from the past and sexual tensions escalate, shattering friendships and changing lives irrevocably.

I love big house books and I read some great reviews of this one. I meant to wait for it to appear in the library, but when I saw I charity shop copy I picked it up.

The Pleasure Dome by Josie Barnard

Belle is bright, funny – and a hopeless mess of self-doubt. A situation not improved by having a glamorous television presenter for a mother. In a bid to shock her mother and hijack some attention for herself, she gets a job as a dancer at the Pleasure Dome, a glitzy champagne strip joint in Soho.

Pokerface, Josie Barnard’s first novel, was cleared from the decks last year. A great book but I was happy to pass it on. So it made sense to add this one in this year. I must confess that it has been waiting for so long that I really can’t remember where I came from.

The Harlot’s Press by Helen Pike

London, 1820: George IV is to be crowned King at last. But will his estranged wife Caroline be allowed to join him as Queen? The city is in turmoil, as her radical supporters rally to her cause and threaten to overturn the government… Into this tumultuous world is thrown Nell Wingfield, a gutsy seventeen-year-old printer of political pamphlets. Nell has recently returned home after a six-month absence that she would rather not explain. After her mother s death, she was duped into working at one of the Houses of the Quality , the brothels on St James s, turning tricks with men at the heart of the English establishment. When one of them a key protagonist in the plot to keep Caroline from the throne – was found dead in his bed, it was time for Nell to leave. But, back on Cheapside, she finds that the family print shop, far from providing a sanctuary, has become a hotbed of dangerous radical activity. Nell’s troubles, it seems, have only just begun…

My fiance is a volunteer gardener, and he found a bag of books dumped among garden waste. This was one of them.

The Diviner’s Tale by Bradford Morrow

Cassandra Brooks is a single mother-of-two, a schoolteacher and a water diviner. Deep in the woods as she dowses the land for a property developer, she is lost in her thoughts, until something catches her eye and her daydream shatters. Swinging from a tree is the body of a young girl, hanged. But when she returns with the authorities, the body has vanished. Already regarded as the local eccentric, her story is disbelieved � until a girl turns up in the woods, alive, mute and identical to the girl in Cassandra’s vision. In the days that follow, Cassandra’s visions become darker and more frequent as they begin to take on tangible form. Forced to confront a past she has tried to forget, Cassandra finds herself locked in a game of cat-and-mouse with a real life killer who has haunted her for longer than she can remember.

This one came from the bag in the gardens too.

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

Mariam is only fifteen when she is sent to Kabul to marry Rasheed. Nearly two decades later, a friendship grows between Mariam and a local teenager, Laila, as strong as the ties between mother and daughter. When the Taliban take over, life becomes a desperate struggle against starvation, brutality and fear. Yet love can move a person to act in unexpected ways, and lead them to overcome the most daunting obstacles with a startling heroism.

This came from the LibraryThing Secret Santa a couple of years ago. If I hadn’t been given a copy I would have borrowed it from the library rather than buying a copy, and I think I should be fine letting this one go.

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And that’s it for this batch. Any thoughts?

Poker Face by Josie Barnard

Allie was convinced that she would be top of the class. Her classmates had made up stories, embellished the truth, but her account of “My Summer Holiday” was completely honest, completely true.

“Bugger this for a lark,” our mum said. “I’ve had enough.”

Yes. This is satisfactory. It is printed in my best hand, in my orange Junior School exercise book. I am pleased.

It is my turn to read out to the class …”

Allie wasn’t top of the class. She won no plaudits at all. Instead she was swiftly shushed by her teacher, and then sent home with her younger brother and sister.

At the age of eleven Allie was learning that life wasn’t fair, and that she had to fight using all the means at her disposal.

That’s what her mother did. She walked out on her husband and her children, never to return.

Three children in a remote Yorkshire farmhouse, with a father who struggled to cope. He cared, he tried, but he just couldn’t cope, practically or emotionally. No wonder his children were insecure, all fighting for time and attention.

Allie shows a wonderful mixture of bravado and vulnerability as she tries to keep her fractious siblings in order, avoid the attention of the school bully, and see off the very real threat posed by her father’s women friends.

Her story is honest, horribly sad, and at the same time horribly funny.

The battle continues as Allie moves on to Big School. She adopts a new, subversive strategy.

“I am reconstructed.

There were stages that had to be gone through. They took me months. First there were these glasses – brown tortoiseshell with an extraordinary large number of dark swirls in them, so they actually do look black, except under close scrutiny. and nobody will be getting close enough to do that.

My new glasses are pleasantly heavy on the bridge of my nose. They distract all attention from the wishy-washy colour of my eyes. By everyone’s standard, they are extremely ugly.

If the worst comment I get is “speccy four eyes” I will be disappointed.

It is my first day at Big School. It is vital that the immediate impression I make is as I planned.

My fringe is grown long enough to touch nearly all along the top edge of my new glasses. It’s like the fringe and the plastic frame are fused together, a mask that can be slotted on and off for complete disguise.

I wriggle my neck inside the stranglingly tight collar and tie. I certainly got that right, my degree of prissiness. My navy and sky blue tie knot is practically pea-sized. Most pupils haven’t even got theirs on yet, or they’re busy lassoing themselves with pre-knotted ones as they go.

The reconstruction is successful.”

Yes, Allie is bright, bolshy, self-possessed and, extraordinarily strong-willed. But she is also immature and quite unable to see the effect she has on others, or to see herself as others do.

Her strategy has unexpected consequences. The face she presents to the world is so distinctive, so remarkable that the school bully is captivated. She takes Allie under her wing.

And so a line is crossed. Allie is no longer fighting for survival, she has become one of the bullies. At school and at home. And she is doing so much damage, to her family and to herself.

There are no easy answers.

But there is truth, about the pain of a damaged family, about the dark side of childhood, about the difficulties of growing up, and about how you survive day by day.

Truth told in a voice that has wit, pathos, emotion. And the power to draw you in, to make you care.

Poker Face is a very little book, but it says an awful lot.

Still Aiming to Clear The Decks

It’s been strange week. I finally accepted that I had to walk away from my job for the sake of my family and my mental health, and so I resigned. I had a birthday. And then a recurring eye problem flared up again.

I’m sure I’m doing the right thing, and that I’ll make it through, but the next few weeks are going to be tough.

I’ll get back to writing about books soon, but right now I’m thinking about putting things in order. And that includes my Clearing The Decks Project.

I have rounded up one hundred books that I think I will be happy into pass on, once I’ve read them and written about them. They are now my home library, stacked in a corner that I will turn to whenever I think I have nothing to read.

Some will be read, some I will accept just aren’t calling me any more and ditch.

I’m posting the books in batches of ten to bring them to the front of my mind, to remind myself why I bought them, why I wanted to read them.

And also to ask for help.

Can you see a book that you enjoyed ? Or a book that you didn’t?

Can you see a book that you’d like to know more about?

Ghost Town by Patrick McGrath

“A man is haunted by the memory of his mother with a rope round her neck. It is the American War of Independence, and having defied the British forces occupying New York she must pay for her revolutionary activities. But fifty years on, her son harbours a festering guilt for his inadvertent part in her downfall. In thrusting nineteenth-century New York, a ruthless merchant’s sensitive son is denied the love of his life through his father’s prejudice against the immigrants flooding into the city – and madness and violence ensue. In the wake of 9/11, a Manhattan psychiatrist treats a favoured patient reeling from the destruction of the World Trade Center, but fails to detect the damage she herself has sustained. In this trio of stunning tales from a master storyteller, Patrick McGrath excavates the layers of New York’s turbulent history.”

Patrick McGrath does this sort of subject so well. I spotted this one in the library, but I didn’t pick it up and it never appeared again. In the end I snared a copy on BookMooch.

Drood by Dan Simmons

“In 1865 Charles Dickens, the world’s most famous writer, narrowly escapes death in the Staplehurst Rail Disaster. He will never be the same again. A public hero for rescuing survivors, he slowly descends into madness as he hunts the individual he believes to be responsible for the carnage: a spectral figure known only as Drood. His best friend, Wilkie Collins, is enlisted for the pursuit. Together they venture into Undertown, the shadowy, lawless web of crypts and catacombs beneath London. Here Drood is rumoured to hold sway over a legion of brainwashed followers. But as Wilkie spirals ever further into opium addiction and jealousy of the most successful novelist, he must face a terrifying possibility: is Charles Dickens really capable of murder?”

When I started blogging a couple of years ago I seemed to be the only person in the world not reading this book. When it was finally published in the UK I ordered a copy straight away. And then it didn’t grab me. I thought that maybe I should reread Collins, read more Dickens, track down some good biographies instead. But I might just give Drood another go before I throw in the towel.

Sleep by Banana Yoshimoto

“Banana Yoshimoto has a magical ability to animate the lives of her young characters, and here she spins the stories of three women, all bewitched into a spiritual sleep. One, mourning a lost lover, finds herself sleepwalking at night. Another, who has embarked on a relationship with a man whose wife is in a coma, finds herself suddenly unable to stay awake. A third finds her sleep haunted by another woman whom she was once pitted against in a love triangle…”

I’ve heard a lot of good things about Banana Yoshimoto, and so when this appeared on a charity shop sale table I picked it up.

Innocent Traitor by Alison Weir

“Lady Jane Grey was born into times of extreme danger. Child of a scheming father and a ruthless mother, for whom she was merely a pawn in a dynastic power game with the highest stakes, she lived a live in thrall to political machinations and lethal religious fervour. Jane’s astonishing and essentially tragic story was played out during one of the most momentous periods of English history. As a great-niece of Henry VIII, and the cousin of Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I, she grew up realize that she could never throw off the chains of her destiny. Her honesty, intelligence and strength of character carry the reader through all the vicious twists of Tudor power politics, to her nine-day reign and its unbearably poignant conclusion.”

I’ve only met Jane Grey as a secondary character in stories of other lives, and so a novel about her by such a formidable historian was an intriging proposition. I bought a copy, and I really don’t know why I haven’t read it yet.

Stone Cradle by Louise Doughty

“‘Elijah Smith was born in the graveyard of the church at Werrington, a village in the Soke of Peterborough. I can tell you this for certain, as I am his mother and so was there at the time.’ Clementina is barely sixteen when she falls pregnant. Other girls had been put out on the highroad for less, but Clementina’s Dei and Dadus stand by her. But the Travellers are treated with suspicion wherever they go, and soon the family are rounded up by the ‘gavvers’, accused of poisioning local livestock. As the Romany people struggle to survive the changes of the twentieth century, Louise Doughty charts one family’s path through persecution and tragedy, asking, can the Romany spirit survive in a century that no longer has space for them?”

I loved Louise Doughty’s first few books. They were small and quirky, but then she started writing bigger more serious books I’m afraid I liked them a little less. I gave this one the benefit of the doubt though when it appeared in a three for two promotion in Waterstones a while back.

Restless by William Boyd

“It is 1939. Eva Delectorskaya is a beautiful 28-year-old Russian emigree living in Paris. As war breaks out she is recruited for the British Secret Service by Lucas Romer, a mysterious Englishman, and under his tutelage she learns to become the perfect spy, to mask her emotions and trust no one, including those she loves most. Since the war, Eva has carefully rebuilt her life as a typically English wife and mother. But once a spy, always a spy. Now she must complete one final assignment, and this time Eva can’t do it alone: she needs her daughter’s help.”

The first of William Boyd’s books that I read – The Blue Afternoon – is high on my all time list, but none of his others have grabbed me in the same way. Yet. I like the look of this one and I was waiting for it to appear in the library when a copy appeared in a charity shop…

The Tea Rose by Jennifer Donnelly

“Set in Whitechapel in 1888, The Tea Rose is a tale of a love lost and won, of a family’s destruction, of murder and revenge — and one young woman’s quest to escape the poverty of her childhood and make her fortune in the tea trade. Fiona Finnegan is the spirited, ambitious daughter of an Irish dock worker. She longs to break free from the squalid lanes and alleys of Whitechapel, where she has a job in a tea factory. With the love of her life, Joe Bristow, she dreams of escaping the poverty and opening her own tea shop. But one by one her dreams fall apart as her father is killed in a dock accident, Joe is seduced by another woman, and her mother is viciously murdered — a suspected victim of Jack the Ripper. Devastated, her life in tatters, Fiona flees to New York where she sets up home with her alcoholic uncle. Slowly she builds his small grocery shop into a thriving tea house, and her new life flourishes. After years of hard work, she establishes herself as the head of her own powerful tea empire. But she cannot forget London — or Joe. Convinced that her father was murdered by his brutal employer, Fiona vows to seek revenge and ruin him once and for all. Making her way back to the streets of her impoverished childhood, Fiona must start her fight again…”

I can blame my mother for this one. She picked it up from the book stall at her lunch club for me.

Poker Face by Josie Barnard

“Allie retired behind her pulled-down fringe and a poker face when her mother walked out leaving three children and their father in a remote house in Yorkshire. Surviving was one thing; learning how to live a little was harder.”

I spotted a flash of Virago green on a charity shop sale table, and so I swooped. it was a rather tatty copy but definitely worth the 50p investment.

Double Fault by Lionel Shriver

“Tennis has been Willy Novinsky’s one love ever since she first picked up a racquet at the age of four. A middle-ranked pro at twenty-three, she’s met her match in Eric Oberdorf, a low-ranked, untested Princeton grad who also intends to make his mark on the international tennis circuit. Eric becomes Willy’s first passion off the court, and eventually they marry. But while wedded life begins well, full-tilt competition soon puts a strain on their relationship—and an unexpected accident sends driven and gifted Willy sliding irrevocably toward resentment, tragedy, and despair.”

I was knocked sideways by We Need to Talk About Kevin, and so I pounced on anything else carrying Lionel Shriver’s name. I started this one, but I wasn’t grabbed and so I put it to one side. Is it worth another try?

The Princess of Burundi by Kjell Eriksson

“The Princess of Burundi begins, benignly enough, with a morning jog. The run turns deadly when the jogger finds a mutilated body in the snow. The victim is soon identified as the town’s reformed troublemaker and an expert on tropical fish.Inspector Ann Lindell, despite being on maternity leave, is determined to find the brutal killer. Soon enough she is drawn into a cruel cat-and-mouse game that leads to the deadliest of confrontations.”

I spotted this one on a shelf in my local Oxfam shop. I picked it up to see what sort of book would have that title, and I was rather surprised to find an award-winning Scandinavian crime novel. It looked interesting but I put it back on the shelf and went to check the library catalogue. There wasn’t a copy in the county, and so when I was next in Oxfam and the book was still on the shelf I bought it.

… and that’s the end of this batch … Any thoughts?