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Bookshelf: From a page-turning literary thriller to a guilty pleasure fantasy read • #119

Join us as we catch up on our recent reads outside of book club, the books we’re picking and choosing for ourselves. Laura enjoys The Sixteen Trees of the Somme by Lars Mytting, declaring it ‘unputdownable’, and  a good antidote to the brilliant but rather more serious novel The Sympathiser by Viet Thanh Nguyen (her Vancouver book club’s pick). We’re joined by journalist Phil Chaffee who shares his recent holiday reading, The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco and My Fourth Time We Drowned by Sally Hayden. Meanwhile Kate has fallen in love with O’Caledonia by Elspeth Barker and sneaks in This Savage Song by V.E. Schwab, a YA fantasy read that proves perfect for those times when you just want to read about things that aren’t real.

Read on for full details of all the books we discussed, our episode transcript, and if you have thoughts on this episode or any books you’ve read recently and want to bring to our attention, jump down to the comments and let us know.

Book recommendations

The Sixteen Trees of the Somme by Lars Mytting

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

O’Caledonia by Elspeth Barker

My Fourth Time We Drowned by Sally Hayden

The Sympathiser by Viet Thanh Nguyen

This Savage Song by V.E. Schwab

We also mentioned in passing Matrix by Lauren Groff, Islands of Abandonment by Cal Flynn, A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes, The Naked Don’t Fear the Water by Matthieu Aikins, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue and The Shades of Magic trilogy, all by V.E. Schwab


Don’t miss Umberto Eco giving us a tour of his library. You think you’ve got #tbr problems? Wait till you see this!



Laura 0:00
Kate, on our last bookshelf show we were super excited because it had been a very long time since we talked about the books that we read outside of book club. This time I’m almost even more excited because we’re joined by Phil Chaffee.

Phil 0:13
Great to be here.

Kate 0:14
It’s so nice to have you back. I always want to know what you’re reading. And suddenly, we thought, ‘Oh, we could just invite you to one of our bookshelf episodes, and then we’d know what you were reading.’ So yeah, what have you been reading recently?

Phil 0:24
A bunch, I was just on holiday in Italy. And I always make a point of trying to read Italian things. And I won’t bore you with all of them. But one I finally got to is hardly a discovery, millions of people read this is I mean …

Kate 0:36
Is it Elena Ferrante?

Phil 0:37
[laughs] It was not Elena Ferrante, although I read that right before my holiday, and finally finished the Neapolitan cycle, but started in and then finished after the holiday The Name of the Rose, the Umberto Eco, which I had started and stopped a lot previously. It’s an amazing book, but it’s pretty dense, and it starts pretty dense. Have either of you read it?

Kate 1:00
I have read it, but when I was really young, I feel like it probably falls into the category of books that I read when I was too young to really appreciate it probably like Middlemarch, that kind of thing. So I bet if I came back to it again, I’d have a really different experience.

Phil 1:13
Yeah, and even as an adult parts are hard going, but it was made into a movie with Sean Connery in the ’80s, and the BBC did a production of it a couple of years ago, because there is a superficial murder plot. It’s set in the early 14th century, at this Italian monastery on top of a mountain, a monk and his assistant arrive. The assistant is a narrator of the novel, but from years in the future, he’s looking back on the events. And they arrive for separate reasons from the rest of the plot. But then there has been a potential murder potential suicide at the monastery. And so there’s a superficial plot that propels you through, monks keep getting knocked off, which is really fun. But it’s also – I mean, the plot is basically pretty dumb, and it doesn’t quite make sense once you get to the end. This is Umberto Eco’s first novel, and he was already a philosopher and historian and a semiotician. And this plot device is mainly there as scaffolding for him to have fun with all of these other things, the philosophical debates of the early 14th century. But also these amazing fun dives into what is knowledge? And how can we know things and plenty of other philosophical things, some of which probably went over my head. But ultimately, it was just a really, really fun read. And if you have tried it before, as I had multiple times, do try to force yourself through I would say, because it turns into a really, really good romp.

Kate 2:43
Some books just need a good bit of concentrated time, don’t they? You can’t just keep picking them up, putting them down on the tube or whatever. And then when you get that time, suddenly they can open up like flowers. So it sounds like this might be in that category.

Phil 2:55
Absolutely. And yeah, each time I had gotten 20 pages in, 30 pages in… It’s also, it’s one of those things, which starts with a 10-page introduction of someone finding this fictional lost manuscript. So it takes a whole while for it really to get to the actual plot, and to what he’s actually doing. But then once you’re there, I don’t know … it was unputdownable for me.

Laura 3:18
That is intriguing. I think I started it as a teenager and put it down because I found it was far more dry than I had expecting. But maybe now that I am a grownup like you Phil, I could try it again. I also find it hard to believe that the philosophy was over your head. Kate, maybe that’s a companion novel after your devotion to Matrix by Lauren Groff.

Kate 3:40
Well, I was wondering …

Laura 3:41
… and take your love of nuns and transfer it to love of monks.

Kate 3:45
Yeah, I was wondering whether given my new interest in mediaeval nuns, whether I would now have more interest in mediaeval monks.

Phil 3:54
Yeah, I actually thought of it mainly because I think there’s one female character in this who I don’t think we hear anything of what she says. It’s entirely a homosocial environment, just like Matrix and I think Lauren Groff had realised there was this literature of stuff set in monasteries where there are no women, and I’m sure she was thinking about that when she did her counterpoint.

Kate 4:16
One for the monk-nun canon, which after Matrix I think a lot of people are seeking out! How about you, Laura, what have you been reading?

Laura 4:25
Keeping with the theme of holiday reading – this is a bit of a loose segue, because I read The Sixteen Trees of the Somme by Lars Mytting. I did not read it on holiday, however, I think it’s such a great holiday read. It’s a literary historical thriller, and it was sent to me by Andrew at Abrams Press in New York, who listens to the pod and said, ‘I think you guys might like this book.’ And I think Kate, you actually said, ‘No, no, Andrew, we’re too busy reading other things.’ And I was like, ‘well hang on a minute’, because the blurb really captured my attention.

Kate 5:00
And, I should interject, he sent a PDF with that email. And I only opened the PDF having assured him that we were far too busy to squeeze it in, and then I read the first few pages and I was sort of like, ‘oh, oh!’ I was kind of hooked. So then I was really pleased that you picked up on it.

Laura 5:14
Let me read you guys the blurb just really quickly because there’s a lot I could say about this, but let’s start with what the publisher said: An engrossing literary novel about a family mystery, revenge and forgiveness. The Sixteen Trees of the Somme is an intricately plotted and enthralling novel by the award winning author of Norwegian Wood and The Bell in the Lake. An international bestseller and long listed for the Dublin Literary Prize, which devoted listeners will know is one of our favourite prizes. The Sixteen Trees of the Somme tells the story of Edvard and starts at his family’s tree farm in Norway, where he was raised by his grandfather. The death of Edward’s parents when he was three has always been a mystery, but he knows that the fate of his grandfather’s brother Einar is somehow connected. One day a coffin is delivered to the farm for his grandfather, long before the grandfather’s death, a meticulous, beautiful and unique piece of craftsmanship with the hallmarks of a certain master craftsman, raising the thought that Einar isn’t dead after all. Edvard is now driven to unravel the mystery of his parents death, following a trail of clues from Norway to the Shetland Islands to the battlefields of France and sixteen ancient walnut trees, coloured by poison gas in World War One, Edvard ultimately discovers a very unusual inheritance.

Laura 6:21
In the first instance, it reminded me a little bit of Tana French, who is a very, very successful crime novelist. I’ve only read one of her books, whose name eludes me at this moment.

Kate 6:32
The Wych Elm?

Laura 6:33
The Wych Elm, that’s the one. And I would recommend that the parallels I think, are a sense of tone, a sense of unease and mystery and something dark hidden below the surface of everyday life. And then in both cases, we have this male protagonist who may or may not be unreliable. Edvard has grown up on this tree farm in northern Norway, he actually is a bit of an outcast, because his grandfather who has raised him after his parents death, was a collaborator, the Germans – this is a slice of Norwegian history I was totally unaware of, but there were people who didn’t see the Nazis necessarily as an invading force, but as allies who were driven to create a different type of Europe. And so his grandfather left and fought with the German army. And then after World War Two was a pariah within his community. And that actually then came down to this young man growing up. We get to go to the Shetland Islands because that is where his great uncle may have been living, you know, I won’t give too much away. There is a thread of romance when he crosses paths with this young, posh woman who’s living in this crumbling mansion on the Shetland Islands, and she has an agenda of her own. We get to then travel down to France with flashbacks to family history and World War One, all circling in on the mystery of what happened to his parents. We know how they die. But how did it happen? And why did Edvard survive, and there’s another missing piece of information there too, that he needs to dig into. So good, really well written, but not so literary, that plot isn’t allowed to let rip, and just drag you in. I super recommend it for holiday reading. And hey, in fact, you know, maybe if you don’t have a lot of time to read, I still think this will be the book to hook you so that at the end of a long day at work, you want to pick it up and dig in. What do you think, have I convinced you guys?

Phil Chaffee 8:27
Yeah, I’m gonna read it right after this. That sounds so good.

Kate 8:30
When you mentioned about the trees being coloured by the poison gas that made me think of Cal Flyn’s book Islands of Abandonment, which I read recently, which I want to talk about properly on another bookshelf. But that book is exploring the places where man has had a usually devastating effect on the natural landscape. So the big example is, say, Chernobyl and the area around there and what’s happened to it, what’s happened to nature and how nature has crept back. But one of the most haunting chapters in that book is that she goes to a place in Verdun in France, it’s a spot in the woods where after the armistice, the Allies had to detonate all of their leftover munitions. And so it was all collected up. And it was all detonated, in this one grove in this woodland, you know, this sort of huge explosion and all these chemicals. And to this day, that grove is a completely toxic environment, you can’t go there, it’s absolutely sealed off. But there’s something about it – she does manage to go and she isn’t able to go right up to it, but she’s able to get to the fence and look in and there was just something so, I don’t know, so haunting and evocative about the idea of this physical remnant of this conflict that had marred the landscape. And yet the way that nature despite everything is creeping back and actually looked at, in some ways is more robust than it had been prior to the catastrophic event. It’s such a strange book because in some senses, it’s very dark because it is about the ravages of humanity upon the natural world. But then the hopeful element is that time and time again, she’s exploring the way that nature actually does regenerate. And so the hope is really, it’s a very long view hope, because basically, it’s the reassurance that once none of us are around anymore, the planet will be fine. And, you know, that is something – sort of depressing but also well…

Laura 10:21
We like being around though! We can’t help ourselves.

Kate 10:25
But that was not the book I had planned to talk about. I wanted to talk about the book called O’Caledonia by Elspeth Barker, which I feel is having a bit of a moment right now, and rightfully so. The author actually died a couple of weeks ago, and I think as a result, a lot of people have been talking about her and this book has been popping up in discussions and in reviews and obituaries, and things like that. But prior to that, I think over the course of the last few months, it had been having a bit of a resurgence; I think Vintage just republished it with an introduction by Maggie O’Farrell. And then someone – I don’t know who – but someone had recommended it to me. And I’d done what I often do, which is I’d ordered it from the London Library. Because London Library books are quite slow burn, you know, often people have them out – you know, in the London library, you can keep books out for months, one book I finally got hold of had been out for a year.! So it’s just a very slow burn. So anyway, the point is, I forget all about these requisitions. And then suddenly, this brilliant package arrives in the post, and I open it – because the membership I have is where they send the books to you. And it was O’Caledonia. Great! So I only opened it just meaning to have a look, and from the very first page I was, ‘oh, oh, this is going to be so good.’ It’s a coming-of-age story. It is, I think quite a good way to describe it as a sort of inverted I Capture the Castle, Dodie Smith’s lovely, warm, romantic story about this girl growing up and sort of nutty family and living in this crumbling castle. This is like the inverse of that. It’s a girl growing up in a horrible castle with a horrible family, where she’s pretty miserable. She’s a child, she’s got a child’s heart, and she’s reaches out to the world around her and the adults around her. And people just do horrible things to her all the time. And there’s this one line I absolutely loved, which is at one point when she’s very young, and her mother has a new baby. And so it’s classic sibling rivalry, she doesn’t like the new baby and she takes the pram out to the garden and basically tries to bury it in leaves. And then she comes back and tells the parents so you don’t have to worry, the other baby’s gone. It’s okay, you know, I’ve got rid of the other baby. And they’re, you know, furious and upset with her. And there’s just this one line: ‘At a young age, realising she doesn’t have her mother’s love, a splinter, a tiny shard of ice crystal had entered her heart and lodged there.’

Kate 12:35
And from that moment on, it’s her against the world. And your sympathies are with her all the way. But she isn’t particularly nice. So you can’t really like her. Anyway, I’m missing the big event, which happens basically on the first page of the novel, where you find out that at the age of sixteen, she dies, she’s murdered in the castle. And and there’s this – I know, I told you, it’s incredibly dark – and then the rest of the book, and it’s not a long book, is tracing her childhood growing up, and you always know then that this event is coming. So if you’re like me, you’re trying all the time does not get attached to her, you know, there’s no point is there [laughs] knowing what’s coming. And yet you just can’t not. She’s such an extraordinary character. She’s so bright. She’s so interesting. And the way that she sees this world that she’s in is so sharp and perfect.

And I was trying to think as I was reading it, ‘what is it about this? Why do I like this so much.’ And I found myself thinking it’s because I’m constantly surprised by it. And I think that is quite a rare thing. You know, when you read a lot, obviously every book is different. But nonetheless, it’s really rare, I think from sentence to sentence to be surprised, and to be delighted, because you just don’t know where it’s going to take you next. And it was such an unexpected read and so great. And it’s had a lot of love. And I love that Maggie O’Farrell, when she wrote about it, she said that she wants decided to be friends with someone solely on the basis that this person had named, O’Caledonia, their favourite book, and I finished it and I was like, ‘yep, that is a pretty good test!’ If someone told me that they love this book, I’d be like, ‘Oh, okay, I must befriend you.’ [laughs]

Interestingly, one of our lovely followers on Instagram messaged me, Pauline Mason, who often sends very interesting, thoughtful comments. She had read it with her book club, and they hadn’t got on with it at all. So you know, it’s not universal, maybe it just somehow stuck with my mood and the moment in my life that I’m at when I read it. As a parent myself, I am endlessly fascinated by stories narrated by children who have terrible parents. I’ve never don’t find that interesting. I think I’m just trying to figure out like what not to do. And this is that. So you know, perhaps it’s not for everyone in the way that I just thought who would not love this book? So read it, try it and see what you think, O’Caledonia by Elspeth Barker.

Laura 14:57
Kate, I don’t think Phil or I ever put on your radar, a book club book from the end of last year? Called A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes.

Kate 15:10
Given that I like this, do you think I would like that?

Laura 15:12
Yeah. Talk about disturbing novels from the children’s perspective. You think it’s going to be a high adventure in the Robinson Crusoe style, don’t you?

Phil 15:25
Yeah, I think it is taught in British schools, or at least this was some anecdotal things we’re getting in the discussion as a fun children’s book about these kids who are taken by pirates as they come back from Jamaica to the UK. But it is very dark, very dark, but very fun as well, even though there’s rape and all this other awful stuff happening.

Laura 15:47
It’s from the children’s perspective, so they don’t fully understand what’s happening. And so you can also see that if you were 13 or 14 when you read it, you probably wouldn’t pick up on what is clearly happening to one of the older girls. It is surprising – and talk about a good book club book. I don’t think anyone loved it.

Phil 16:05
I pretty much loved it.

Laura 16:06
Did you?

Phil 16:07
Yeah, and then we did have someone who didn’t join who said she despised it. And she was absolutely nauseated by it.

Kate 16:16
How interesting

Laura 16:17
It’s pretty disturbing.

Laura 16:19
Who is that by?

Laura 16:20
A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes. And I will read O’ Caledonia. If you read that one, Kate

Kate 16:27
Deal because I know that one of us is going to read something brilliant. Who’s next? Phil, back to you.

Phil 16:33
I have a truly dark book, which I just finished a book that came out this year called My Fourth Time We Drowned: Seeking Refuge on the World’s Deadliest Migration Route by Sally Hayden.

Kate 16:46
This sounds like a very timely book.

Phil 16:48
It’s a very timely book is incredibly well written made me cry, the bigger emotions though was just fury at the system that has created this. Let me just read the blurb. Sally Hayden is this Irish journalist and in August 2018 she received a Facebook message: ‘Hi, sister, Sally, we need your help’ it read. ‘We are under bad conditions in Libya prison. If you have time, I will tell you all this story.’ More messages followed from more refugees. They told stories of enslavement and trafficking, torture and murder, tuberculosis and sexual abuse. And they revealed something else, that they were all incarcerated as a direct result of European policy.

Phil 17:29
Obviously a very serious topic. You learn a whole lot about –particularly after 2015 – EU policies to basically fund and cooperate with the Libyan coast guard to intercept all of the refugees trying to get across the Mediterranean, take them back to these hellish camps in Libya, where then the UNHCR – the big UN refugee agency – would come and visit and give its stamp, its imprimature, but these are just awful and full of slavery and torture and rape and death.

Phil 18:01
Beyond that, she also gives a history of a lot of the countries these places are coming from. So I did not know much about how awful the situation is in Eritrea, then, in the middle of this and her reporting, war in Libya breaks out again, the Civil War. All of this sounds incredibly dark. And it is, but she does manage to have some positive stories at the end. I put it down and thought everyone, particularly in Europe, but the issues in North America are not that dissimilar just slightly, you have to change some of the details, or in Australia for that matter. But I just felt like everyone has to read this book. It is astonishing. Sally Hayden is just amazing. And you really get a sense of who some of these refugees and migrants are. I was absolutely floored by it.

Kate 18:51
And is there there any suggestion of any possibility of a solution or a better way?

Phil Chaffee 18:57
No, I mean …

Kate 18:59
Because that’s, I think, I feel like that’s why I find these books hard. It’s not that I don’t want to read the stories, it’s that I find it so frustrating reading about things where there seems to be no way of changing any of it. It just seems to be such a ‘this is the way it is’.

Phil 19:12
Yeah, and I mean, the point that he’s made in the book is, I think, by multiple people, that the countries enacting this system and really pushing things in the EU, and at the UNHCR, are democratic countries and they are responding to their populations, because their politicians know that the second there’s enough migrants or refugees there, they might be voted out of office. And we’ve seen this populism everywhere, from Marine Le Pen to Donald Trump, and I, you know, I think it’s above Sally Hayden’s paygrade to expect her to give us a solution. But I also feel like just because there’s not a solution, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be reading it. It’s an astonishing book. It was also a page turner. I mean, it’s very engrossing and compelling but yeah, not particularly light holiday reading.

Kate 20:02
Yeah, no, I think it looks really interesting. And as you say, an important book. It reminds me when I interviewed Jacques Testard, he’s the publisher at Fitzcarraldo. He gave me a few books to take away and one of them was a book called The Naked Don’t Fear the Water by Matthiu Aikens and he is Canadian, but because of his own heritage, he looks like an Afghan, he’s got the same physiognomy. And he has a friend in Kabul, where he had worked as a reporter. And this friend messages him and says, ‘I’m going to try and make it to Europe.’ And he decides to travel with him, and experience that journey alongside him. And I think this book then is about that journey, and what that’s like, and I believe there are a couple of moments where they’re in such difficulties, and he is able to pull out his passport, and that sort of saves the situation. But most of the time, as I understand it, he’s absolutely at his friend’s side experiencing the same thing. And when Jacques gave it to me, I, I said, is it gonna make me cry. And he said, ‘Yes’, but he said, it’s a book, as you just said, it’s a book that everyone should read,

Phil 21:11
That does remind me one big point of this book is so many of these refugees, by the time they reach Libya, have gone through so much, both in their home countries and the oppression they face in the routes getting to the Mediterranean. And then many of them get trapped in these camps. Maybe they finally escaped the camp and try to cross and then suddenly they’re back in these camps. And they’ve spent years of their life. It’s absolutely heartbreaking.

Kate 21:39
And you know what, maybe if we can’t do anything the very least we could do is to read their stories and understand about what’s happening.

Laura 21:47
The next book I was going to talk to you about is The Sympathiser by Viet Thanh Nguyen, who is an American Vietnamese academic. And this is not a book that has flown beneath the radar. Although it seems to be having a bit of a resurgence. It won the Pulitzer in 2016. But for some reason, book club members were saying they keep seeing it everywhere so people are coming back to it. It’s described as a blistering exploration of identity politics in America, wrought in electric prose. The narrator, a Vietnamese army captain, is a man of divided loyalties, a half-French half-Vietnamese Communist sleeper agent in America after the end of the Vietnam War. A powerful story of love and friendship and a gripping espionage novel, The Sympathiser examines the legacy of the Vietnam War in literature, film and the wars we fight today. And Phil, before we started recording, you were saying you have read this right?

Phil 22:36
Yes, I read it maybe a year ago.

Laura 22:38
And it is really good. It’s a really good book. It is also a very dense book. I think it’s the longest 380-page book I’ve ever read. I think if we had introduced paragraph breaks, and a different typesetting, it would easily be 700 pages. And Nguyan is an academic and so he is really setting out to critique American society, to critique American depictions of the Vietnam War and depictions of Vietnamese people. And it’s angry, and we have this strong satirical narrative voice. The narrator himself, I would say isn’t necessarily angry, or if he is it’s in kind of a suppressed way, because the book is called The Sympathiser. And he says at the very beginning, that he is able to sympathise and understand American culture and American people.

Laura 23:29
He himself is the son of a young Vietnamese woman. She was only 14 when she had him, and a white French priest who quite clearly, you know, raped his young maid. What can I say? I feel slightly overwhelmed by talking about it because it’s such an intelligent book. And despite what the description says about it being blistering, and an espionage tale and lots of action, actually, there are moments of that. But there’s also a lot of polemic layered in and I think sometimes satire is also difficult to engage with, characters are a little bit stereotyped. There’s one figure called the Crapulent Major, who our narrator has to kill because he’s suspected of being a communist mole. And so the narrator to preserve his own undercover status has to off him in a garage in suburban California.

Laura 24:17
It’s a great book. It’s a challenging book, and I haven’t actually finished it and most of my book club hadn’t, and it sounds like it just gets darker and darker and darker. Because we know that the narrator is actually writing his confession that he must be back in Vietnam a decade on perhaps from the main events of this book, maybe less and he’s being interrogated, I think for his sympathies to the Americans, and in some form would have to prove his loyalty to Communism afresh, and it sounds like that gets really really dark, so I don’t know that I’m going to read it. What did you think of this one, Phil?

Phil 24:50
Wait, you don’t know if you’re gonna finish it? I just can’t imagine getting as far as you obviously have and not …. It’s so, like, compulsive that book. I thought it was great.

Laura 25:05
Did you find compulsive? I don’t think I did.

Phil 25:07
Interesting. His anger. And he’s such an interesting character. That is really what kept me going. And I just wanted to know how it all ended. And now that I say this, I can’t actually remember how it all ended,

Laura 25:19
I believe there’s torture involved.

Phil 25:22
But there are some big amazing scenes that I remember this including all of these Vietnamese who have worked with the Americans, as Saigon is falling, what it was like at the airport as the last planes are trying to get out. I mean, that is sort of burned in my head.

Laura 25:38
That is high cinematic drama. Yeah, when they talk about it being gripping. Yeah, that moment too, I could not put it down. You were just there, you could see it as if it was on a big screen at the cinema, with all the noise and chaos surrounding you.

Phil 25:52
It was just so driven, I think, I mean, beyond those cinematic scenes, by also this character who is a Communist, but also is very attracted to the west, and is in this in between space and attracted to a lot of accoutrements of capitalism. That particular spice blend just seemed really, really compulsive to me, and it’s not a spoiler to say that there is a sequel to this, that have not read yet with the same character in Paris, I think

Laura 25:55
It’s called The Committed, I just googled it. The Committed follows the unnamed Sympathiser, as he arrives in Paris in the early 1980s.

Phil 26:28
I will read that at some point, because I am pretty sold on the author.

Laura 26:31
Maybe you’ve shamed me into finishing.

Kate 26:33
For the newsletter, I occasionally do this thing about a dictionary of words for bookish states or experiences, or I feel like there’s no word – the Germans probably have a word but we don’t have a word. And just thinking there’s another one there isn’t there about the experience of reading a book knowing that there’s another book?

Phil 26:47

Kate 26:47
Because it does slightly affect your reading of the book, the reading, if you know that there’s a follow-on or something else to come. Also, if the real world seems too dark and depressing and frankly, terrifying, you can always escape into fantasy. Would you like to know what I’ve been reading recently?

Phil 27:02

Kate 27:03
With some things on my mind that I’m trying to procrastinate and not think about. I dived into a book called This Savage Song by Victoria Schwab, author of The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, which I loved – well, actually, I liked a lot. And I remember Laura, you were very lukewarm on the Shades of Magic trilogy, which I LOVED. And I don’t know, I think Laura couldn’t bear to tell me that she didn’t really like them.

Laura 27:26
Oh I haven’t tried those. I haven’t actually tried them. It’s possible I might like them. I don’t know, V.E. Schwab, though ..

Kate 27:32
I think one of the interesting things about her is that her books are quite different. If you liked one, like I loved the Shades of Magic, it’s actually not then a given that you’re going to like another but then the great thing about that is that if those books didn’t resonate with you, you could try something else by her, and that might. I think the thing is, she’s a good enough writer, she can turn her hand convincingly in lots of different directions. So This Savage Song: we’re in a strange, some kind of post-apocalyptic future where the city is divided. And in the north are one set of people who live in relative safety and prosperity, but only because they’ve made some kind of Devil’s bargain. And they pay this man called Callum Harker, who basically keeps them all safe. And they all have this medal. And the thing that they’re all worried about being attacked by are these monsters. So there are these different kinds of monsters. They all sound vaguely biblical. There’s the Malachai. There’s the – I can’t remember now, the Calderai? – and then there’s our guy who’s the Sunai. Anyway, at the beginning you don’t understand anything about these monsters, you don’t know what’s going on. And on this other side of the city, is the monster side. It’s the side where people are living with the monsters. And there’s this Freedom Force who’s trying to keep people safe. And it’s a much more hardscrabble, dangerous world on the south side. And there’s this thing called the Seam which is separating the two sides of the city.

Kate 28:51
And you learn about all this by these two protagonists. So you’ve got Kate Harker, who’s the daughter of the evil Callum Hawker on the one side, and she’s going to a school, she’s been taken there in a limousine. She’s attending the school, but you learn very quickly that she’s had this incredibly troubled past. This is her ninth or tenth out of so many schools that she’s been kicked out of, and everyone hates her because of who her father is. And then on the other side, we’ve got this character called August, who seems like a boy who’s just going to the school and attending the school. But you know from the very beginning that something is not normal about him. There’s some sort of strange things, you can’t quite make sense of it. And I loved that about this. What I love was the way that it doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t make any sense at the beginning. And you’re really just like, ‘what? I don’t understand what’s going on with these characters. Who is this character? Why is he going here?’ And I almost wanted to be a bit impatient with it. And I remember I had tried to read this book once before because I loved the Shades of Magic books so much. I tried to read this and I didn’t get on with it – aargh, I didn’t really like these characters, it’s not the same, so I just put it to one side. This time, I was more in the mood to give it more of a go. Also, I discovered this amazing thing. Do you know about Borrowbox Phil?

Phil 29:56

Kate 29:57
So it’s an app like an e reader app. But it’s connected to your library. So if you have a membership of any library, which do you? I know I do – do you not have?

Phil 30:06
No, I’m a bad book-buyer. It’s one of my many bad habits.

Kate 30:10
I love my local library. It’s just one of the many, many sources by which I consume books. Anyway, if you have a library membership, then you download this Borrowbox app and you key in the membership number that you have your local library. And suddenly, this world of audio books and ebooks is available for you at the touch of a finger. And so what was really great was that I probably wouldn’t have paid money to download or buy a copy of This Savage Song, but I was really happy just to try it on Borrowbox and see anyway, so I did carry on with it. And then gradually the magic started to work.

I just love that she’s so good at characters and I love her dialogue. I love the way she does dialogue. I love the way that her characters say things that I really can imagine people actually saying. And they’ve got all kinds of issues, you know, this one’s all worried about this. And this one’s all worried about this. And they’re all terribly snarled up and I think that’s the YA element to it. They’re all on emotional knife edge all the time. And then, you know, they have these real battles to fight and real monsters to kill. And it’s all just done very well. And it’s quite dark. It’s quite violent, but it’s this relationship between the two – almost the dark and the light – these two characters that carries you through, much as the thing that I loved about the Darker Shades books was this relationship between these two main characters? And I thought perhaps I just like books where there’s a really ‘will they won’t they’ relationship. That will carry me through a lot

Laura 31:20
You know, nothing wrong with that.

Kate 31:21
Anyway, I absolutely lapped this up. And while I read it, just to return by a very circuitous route to the original point that I was making, I had the knowledge that there was a follow-up called Our Dark Duet. So I just really savoured this, but also I was enjoying it so much. And I was so happy to know that there was another book, which I now romping through. I would have to say with my totally objective hat on that I don’t think it’s quite as good as This Savage Song was, it’s not working quite as well for me, but I’m still very forgiving of it. And I’m having a great time reading it. I recommend them highly.

Laura 31:56
Kate, would you recommend This Savage Song or her trilogy?

Kate 32:01
The Darker Shades? Yeah, the magic ones. I would recommend that I loved those books. I’ve read them about eight times [laughs]

Laura 32:07
But they’re, like, 900 pages long

Kate 32:10
They’re not that long. Yeah, The Invisible Life of Addie La Rue was quite a long book, although maybe it was a book that just felt long. Yeah, yeah, I remember, I agree with you. I think you’re right to say that it’s a book where not that much happens for a long time. These books are not that. These books are very pacey, they’re all action. But I think those Darker Shades books really nailed it. For me. I thought the world building was so great. And these characters and the things that they cared about and the way that they felt about each other. She’s so good at all of that, I loved it

Laura 32:38
Phil, to send us off. Do you have any recent fantasy reads that you wanna share with Kate and me?

Phil 32:45
I’m reading just sort of before I go to sleep every day, it’s some completely generic fantasy that I don’t even know the name of, and it just sort of reminds me of the fantasy books I read as a teenager. There’s some boy, he has a lot of power, there’s going to be dragons. I don’t know, it’s really dumb, but I sort of love it for it’s generic blandness.

Kate 33:07
I think that’s what I needed as well. I think sometimes you just need to know that things aren’t real. Fantasy really gives you that doesn’t it?

Phil 33:15
P articularly like reading this before going to sleep. It’s just like some dumb land that I’m in for a tiny bit, and then like, as I fall into dreams, they might not be about my boring day job.

Kate 33:27
But for me to care about it, the characters have to be good. And we talked about there’s good fantasy, and there’s just books that have dragons on the cover.

Phil 33:35
I think I’m reading the latter right now.

Laura 33:39
I saw that Guy Gavriel Kay, the Canadian fantasy writer and I’ve read every single one of his books. He has a new one out, and I’m gonna buy it for my long haul flight I’m on next week and I am so excited. It’s probably like 700 pages. I’m not gonna have a child with me. Gonna be so good.

Kate 33:59
That is the dream.


Thoughts on the episode? Have you read any of the books we discussed? Let us know.



  • Lilly Goulandris-Ali
    May 15, 2022 at 8:32 pm  - Reply

    I’ve only read one of VE Schwab’s books, and that’s ‘Vicious’. It’s one of my favourite novels: hard for me to describe, but it’s sort of got a Secret History vibe, crossed with a noir action film. The characters are morally grey and it’s written in a very concise, sharp way. I’d definitely recommend it!

    • Kate
      May 18, 2022 at 3:29 pm  - Reply

      Oh I am SO sold. Thank you 🙂

  • Caryl
    May 23, 2022 at 1:40 pm  - Reply

    I found your podcast during lockdown and absolutely love it. I started at the beginning and have worked my way through in order from episode 1 and have just finished this latest podcast.
    I am so sad that I will now have to wait until each one is released to get my fix of your brilliant discussions.
    I’ve added so many books to my ever growing TBR pile, including O’Caledonia following this episode.

    • Kate
      May 27, 2022 at 10:53 pm  - Reply

      Ah Caryl, so lovely to hear this. My goodness, I think the only other person who has listened to every episode from episode 1 is me! (And Laura.) You’ve even heard the Prophets of Eternal Fjord episode which is one of my all-time favourites and almost no-one listens to (or so the stats tell me). So happy you’ve enjoyed the shows and we’re definitely planning on keeping them coming. Let us know what you think of O’Caledonia, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

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