wandering_star's tenth year in Club Read

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wandering_star's tenth year in Club Read

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1wandering_star
Jan. 2, 2018, 4:20pm

10 years! I am so pleased to have been with Club Read from the beginning, and have countless books on my wishlist and TBR which were inspired by others here.

I've had a really good reading year in 2017, and am hoping for more of the same this year.

Best books of 2017? (cross-posted from 2017 thread):

As usual when I look back over the way I have rated books over the year, there are some which have improved in my memory and some which I must have enjoyed at the time, but which haven't made so much of a long-term impression on me.

The books I gave 5 stars to over the year were:

Almost Famous Women by Megan Mayhew Bergman - a short story collection, reimagining the lives of real historical women who had some sort of brush with fame

Sorceror to the Crown by Zen Cho - magical alternate history fantasy set in roughly Napoleonic Britain, with magic, and a great cast of characters

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett - a scientist lives with indigenous people in the Amazon rainforest; some of the best writing of the year and an examination of questions about who has the right to make decisions about another person's life

NW by Zadie Smith - the lives of a group of friends in NW London, which say something about society in modern Britain. I was surprised to see that I had given this 5 stars, but thinking back I do remember enjoying it a lot

A Chinese Life by Li Kunwu - a graphic memoir/history of China over the last 100 years or so. Another one that I wouldn't have remembered as one of my best books of the year, but which when I think about it was both enjoyable and illuminating.

The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers - absolutely bonkers fantasy featuring a magical Dickensian London, Egyptian gods, magical battles, and a complicated interlocking timeline which was a pleasure to figure out.

Hild by Nicola Griffith - exemplary historical fiction about Britain during the gradual shift from paganism to Christianity, inspired by the life of the seventh-century Saint Hilda, who was born a pagan and ended up as Abbess of Whitby and an influential political as well as religious figure. Incredibly well-imagined.

Golden Hill by Francis Spufford - more excellently imagined historical fiction, this time set in the early days of the settlement of New York, with a picaresque quality.

The top three from these were, in order:
1. Hild
2. State of Wonder
3. Golden Hill

I also gave 4.5 stars to:

The Clocks in This House All Tell Different Times by Xan Brooks - disturbing but well-written story of a young girl in the aftermath of World War II

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman - mythological retellings with a quirky spin

All Clear by Connie Willis - time-travelling historians stuck in World War II, with themes about how ordinary people can display heroic behaviour in difficult circumstances

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay - blistering, thought-provoking essays about everything from feminism, privilege, representation in popular culture and Scrabble. Gave me a whole different way of thinking about some of the issues which really concern me.

The Bone Readers by Jacob Ross - detective novel, set in the Caribbean. I confess I don't remember it very well, but it must have been good!

There are also some 4 star books which are high up in my memory of the year:

Autumn
Tea with Mr Rochester
Tirra Lirra by the River
The Sunlight Pilgrims
The Vanishing Futurist
American Housewife
The Essex Serpent
Indonesia etc. - one of the few non-fiction on the list which both scored highly and has stayed in my memory. I think for some of the others, I found them well-written and full of interesting facts, but have forgotten much of what they told me.

2wandering_star
Jan. 2, 2018, 5:03pm

An idea stolen from Nickelini - where books have taken me in 2017:

Himalayas, 1930s - non-fiction, multiple locations - London and Sussex, 1923 - New York State, contemporary and 2000s - New York, 1746 - Sri Lanka, 1215 - North America, near future and 20+ years in the future - Peking, 1910s - UK, contemporary - UK, 1970s-2010s - (NF) USSR history and contemporary - London, 1727 - rural England, 1930s - rural England, 1930s - C7th Britain - Appalachia, C18-C21 - Scotland, C11 - Iraq/US, C21 - London, 1983, C19th, and C17 - Roman Britain - US, contemporary - UK and Russia, C16 - UK and India, 1805-1905 - (no place) - Amazon jungle, C18-today - US, contemporary - Elizabethan England - US, alternate reality contemporary - (no place) - US, mainly 1970s - UK, contemporary - China, 1950s-now - London, contemporary - Toronto & Sarajevo, contemporary - Thailand, contemporary - England, Christmas 1935 - New Guinea, 1930s - German New Guinea, 1906-7 - BBC Broadcasting House, WWII - London and Italy, contemporary - lighthouses around UK, 1970s - Cape Town, contemporary - Caribbean, contemporary - Indonesia, contemporary - (no place) - Moscow, 1914-1919 - USA, 1940s-1970s (short stories) - London, contemporary - (no place) - Scotland, contemporary - Korea and Japan, 1910-contemporary - London, Victorian and contemporary - US, 1960s - London and Essex, Victorian - UK, contemporary - UK, future and WWII - Korea, contemporary - UK, Edwardian - UK, Elizabethan - US and Brazil, contemporary - UK and US, C18 - London and Scotland, 2020 - London and Berlin, 1989 - Russia & US, 1930s-contemporary (stories) - North Korea, contemporary - UK, future and WWII - Kenya, early 2000s - France, contemporary - Australia, 1970s - Nigeria, 1950s/timeless - Australia, contemporary - Scotland, contemporary - Dublin, contemporary - Scandinavia, prehistory - China, 1989-present - Soviet Union/Russia, 1950s-2010s - UK, contemporary - Malaya, 1930s - UK, contemporary - UK, post-WWII - Austria, contemporary - Japan, contemporary - alien planet, future - (no place) - Northern Ireland, early 1980s - UK, alternate Regency-ish - US and Nigeria, contemporary - New York City, contemporary - US Old West, alternate nineteenth century - India, contemporary - mixed, mainly historical - UK, nineteenth century - Scotland, contemporary - (no place) - Singapore, 1950s-now - (no place) - Denmark, contemporary with some historical storylines (20 years ago) - Japan, 15 years ago and contemporary - range of times/places - Dorset, eighteenth century - UK, 1940s - US, 1970s - UK, France and US, alternate contemporary - UK, 2017 - at sea, no specific time - France, contemporary - Austria & Switzerland (with a bit of US), 1960s - US, nineteenth century-now - US, contemporary - US, contemporary - US, 1950s - US, contemporary

3wandering_star
Bearbeitet: Jan. 8, 2018, 8:14pm

I'm not very good at sticking to challenges but my aspirations this year include spending less time scrolling through social media and more time reading actual books; to try and read some of the books which have been on my TBR shelves the longest, and to try and read more of the non-fiction (especially history) which I buy much more than I actually read.

I will try and follow the Reading Globally challenges: the quarterly reads this year are

1. Travelling the TBR
2. Japan and the Koreas
3. Between Giants: Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Dagestan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan
4. Tradition and Change

And inspired by Darryl (kidzdoc)'s idea to read in memory of RebeccaNYC, whose threads on Club Read I always found interesting, I will be trying to read many of the books our libraries share, selecting from this list:

Non-fiction:
What to Listen For in Music by Aaron Copland
Alex's Adventures in Numberland by Alex Bellos
Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli
The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain by Maria Rosa Menocal
Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich
From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia by Pankaj Mishra
Terra Nullius by Sven Lindqvist

Short stories/anthologies:

Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida
Varieties of Exile by Mavis Gallant
The Ends of the Earth: An Anthology of the Finest Writing on the Arctic and the Antarctic by Elizabeth Kolbert
At least one of the Best American short stories we share (2006, 2007, 2008)

Fiction:

Hadji Murat by Leo Tolstoy
Fasting, Feasting by Anita Desai
The Singapore Grip by J. G. Farrell
This Earth of Mankind by Pramoedya Ananta Toer
Satantango by László Krasznahorkai
Equal Danger by Leonardo Sciascia
All About H. Hatterr by G. V. Desani
The Quality of Mercy by Barry Unsworth
Irretrievable by Theodor Fontane
Corrigan by Caroline Blackwood
Oliver VII by Antal Szerb
The Suitcase and Pushkin Hills by Sergei Dovlatov
White Masks by Elias Khoury
Time Present and Time Past by Deirdre Madden
Memoirs of a Revolutionary by Victor Serge
Solo Faces by James Salter
A Game of Hide and Seek by Elizabeth Taylor
Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household
The Hilary Mantels we share - A Change of Climate, An Experiment in Love, Giving up the Ghost
At least one re-read of Sarah Caudwell (we both have all four books)
Nineteen Seventy Four or GB84 by David Peace

4arubabookwoman
Bearbeitet: Jan. 2, 2018, 6:48pm

Interesting to see that Hild was your top read of 2017. I've had it on my Kindle for several years, after having read a few rave reviews, but sadly I have not gotten to it yet. I've got to remedy that.

ETA--Noticing your rebeccanyc inspired reads--I was the one who recommended GB84 to Rebecca (and I think also Nineteen Seventy Four). Also later, when I was reading Zola, and Rebecca commented that she hadn't read any Zola--I recommended that she read Germinal first, since she had by then read and enjoyed GB84, also a story about miners and mining. She did, and then took off on her Rougon-Marquet journey which we all enjoyed so much. I still am only about half way through the series.

5wandering_star
Jan. 2, 2018, 7:52pm

>4 arubabookwoman: I read Germinal inspired by Rebecca. So you can add me as another link in the chain!

6arubabookwoman
Jan. 3, 2018, 1:05am

That just means that you have to read GB84 now to compare. :)

7wandering_star
Jan. 3, 2018, 1:41am

I'm on it!

8wandering_star
Jan. 5, 2018, 4:21am

1. Tinderbox by Megan Dunn

After a couple of false starts, this was a great book to kick off my reading year. It's a novella-length piece of creative non-fiction about Dunn's efforts to write a book inspired by Fahrenheit 451 during one NaNoWriMo, and her experience working for Borders bookshops in the years before they went into receivership. These combine into an essay about Bradbury's book, the Truffaut film adaptation of it, the difficulties of creating a piece of art, and the fate of books in the modern world. (As the quote on the cover of my edition says: "I know what temperature books burn at. Half price.")

I enjoyed this hugely. The way Dunn mixes together her experiences, the book she is writing and her wider thoughts reminded me of Ali Smith's Artful, a novel which grew out of a series of lectures on literature which Smith actually gave. After reading it I found Dunn's twitter feed which led me to this article by Dunn about her work on her current book, which will be about professional mermaids. The style of this article is very similar to the style of Tinderbox, so it's a quick way to find out if you will enjoy Dunn's writing.

Now that I worked at the bargain bookshop I felt tainted by the remainders. I too was one of life's remainders. I couldn't afford a mechanical turtle even if I wanted one. I felt as grim as the pigeons that roosted in the sign above the shop door. In the evening the sky wriggled out of its grey sweatshirt and pulled down its black tattered sleeves. I got up and flicked the lights off.

9dchaikin
Jan. 6, 2018, 5:17pm

Professional mermaids as in like Weeki Wachee? I'm intrigued by Dunn's book and glad I read your review. What is the fate of books in our world with all the technology and world leaders who don't read?

10wandering_star
Jan. 7, 2018, 4:40am

I hadn't heard of Weeki Wachee, but I have googled it and the answer is yes!

11wandering_star
Jan. 7, 2018, 4:58am

2. The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Evelyn Hugo is a Hollywood icon, having managed to be an ingenue in the 1950s, appeared in daring European films in the 1960s, and later starring in hard-hitting 'issue' films. Along the way she managed to pick up seven husbands, and now at the end of her life she is finally ready to tell her story. Unexpectedly she selectes a junior magazine writer, Monique Grant, and insists this is the only person she will tell her story to. Through her meetings with Monique we hear about her ambition and drive, and learn the great secret of her life: the seven marriages were steps she took deliberately, first to get her to where she wanted to be, in Hollywood, and later to cover up her love for a female co-star. And Monique, at first a shy and timid young woman, learns from her encounters with Evelyn to stand up for herself, recognise what she wants and make it happen.

I borrowed this book from the library because I'd seen it on a couple of best-of-the-year lists. Having read it, I find this mystifying. There is no texture to the book at all. No sense of what Hollywood was like, or the way that the movies or society was changing over the decades, no sense even that the main character was developing through all her varied experiences - she was the same from beginning to end. The theme is supposed to be about different types of love, but even here the book is unconvincing. And the writing is rather simplistic if not actually clunky. The best thing I can say for this is that it was a very quick read.

Here's the thing about Hollywood. It's both a place and a feeling. If you run there, you can run toward Southern California, where the sun always shines and the grimy buildings and dirty sidewalks are replaced by palm trees and orange groves. But you also run toward the way life is portrayed in the movies. You run toward a world that is moral and just, where the good guys win and the bad guys lose, where the pain you face is only in an effort to make you stronger, so that you can win that much bigger in the end.

12wandering_star
Bearbeitet: Jan. 7, 2018, 5:20am

3. How to Be a Kosovan Bride by Naomi Hamill

This book tells the stories of two women, known as the Kosovan Wife and the Returned Girl (returned because there was no blood on the sheets after the first wedding night, although her father is loving and/or modern enough to accept her pleas not to be immediately married off again to an older husband - instead he lets her continue her studies, and go to university). Their lives are interleaved with stories - folktales told by the Wife to her children, and stories of the war written by the Girl, who wants to be a writer.

The two women are not named until the very end of the book - in fact I spent most of the book thinking this was a 'Sliding Doors'-style story where one woman's life divides at one crucial point. The chapters telling their stories are all titled "How to ... a Kosovan ..." (pass a Kosovan exam, build a Kosovan house, have a Kosovan baby etc). These two factors make the novel feel like a fable of everywoman (or two everywomen) rather than the lives of individuals. Their lives, and the stories they tell, examine the impact on the lives of Kosovan women and men of both the experiences and aftermath of the war, and the very socially conservative society and traditions.

Hamill is a Brit, but makes regular visits to Kosovo each summer. Perhaps for an outsider it makes sense to try and tell an everywoman story rather than giving us a fully rounded, naturalistically written character. I think she succeeds in giving us a glimpse of what lives are like in Kosovo, particularly for young women; and even though I don't normally like the style of writing which feels like a fable, I found the book compelling and wanted to keep turning the pages.

Here's a chapter about the Returned Girl:



and here's one of the stories she writes:

13rachbxl
Jan. 7, 2018, 5:41am

>8 wandering_star:, >9 dchaikin: I read an article in an in-flight magazine recently about professional mermaids. It sounded absolutely bonkers - intriguing.

Looking forward to following your reading for another year.

14fannyprice
Jan. 7, 2018, 4:51pm

>1 wandering_star:, I've been putting off reading/listening to the Neil Gaiman Norse Mythology book because I'm worried I'm going to like it so much and then won't have it to look forward to! How ridiculous is that?

I've generally enjoyed the Connie Willis Time Travelling Historians books because they (seem to at least, given that I've never been to the past!) do such a great job of evoking the past times and places they depict. The level of research she seemed to have done for Blackout/All Clear was amazing. The only thing that is really starting to bother me about these books is how often plot points seem to rely on people (in the future) being unable to communicate reliably with each other, which stretches the imagination a bit when we're being asked to believe in time travel. :)

>3 wandering_star:, Ornament of the World is wonderful, I hope you enjoy it!

15dchaikin
Jan. 7, 2018, 11:06pm

>10 wandering_star: the wonders of Florida.

>13 rachbxl: I didn’t realize there was an industry. You can can google “live mermaid shows near me”.

16SassyLassy
Jan. 8, 2018, 7:00pm

Being Celts, all my mermaids have red hair.

17wandering_star
Jan. 8, 2018, 8:16pm

What a fantastic rabbit hole! Apparently we have them in the UK as well.

18wandering_star
Bearbeitet: Jan. 9, 2018, 1:13am

4. Fasting, Feasting by Anita Desai

(First of the books which I share with RebeccaNYC's library).

There seems to a sub-genre of books about the lives of women who are past marriageable age or otherwise unable to marry, and put-upon by their families, who treat them with neglect and careless cruelty. From my own recent reading I can think of The Rector's Daughter, The Vet's Daughter, and many of the characters in the short story collection Tea with Mr Rochester. I don't think such characters can exist in the same way in contemporary Western fiction, particularly because women now have many more options to earn their livings, and don't have to depend on the grudging support of their family members.

However, that's not the case everywhere in the world, and in this book, Anita Desai gives us the portrait of one such woman in modern India. Clumsy, shy and unattractive, Uma has almost been married twice, but in both cases it turned out to be a scam to get hold of a dowry. Now she lives at home, with little to do other than fetch and carry for her parents, and give messages to the servants or the neighbours. It isn't a huge canvas for a story, but it is sad and moving - the cruellest moment being when the family doctor, an older single woman herself, comes to the house with a suggestion of a job for Uma and is sent away dismissively by Uma's parents.

Oddly, though, the last quarter of the book then turns to Uma's younger and beloved brother, studying in the US and spending the summer living with a relative of a friend of the family (an American missionary). This part is obviously meant to comment or counterpoint Uma's story in some way, but I couldn't really work out what the message was. The title, Fasting, Feasting suggests that perhaps his life is meant to represent feasting - on love? approval? independence? - where Uma is deprived, or perhaps the fast and the feast represent India and the US (or the US and India, depending on whether you're thinking about material goods or personal networks). But he is also unhappy, feeling stifled by the attentions of his family at home, and out of place in the US suburbs; and the father of the American family is just as arrogant and unprepared to listen as the Indian one. Or perhaps the title is ironic - you think he should be feasting but in fact things are not easy for him either. I don't find this very satisfying though because Uma's life is objectively so miserable. I can't help feeling that the book would have been better without this last segment.

Uma gave up wrenching at the ring and did as she was told, and if the samosas slid and slipped all over the plate, at least none landed on the floor. She managed to cross the whole length of the room in her unaccustomed sari and offer him the samosas without an accident. Then all he did was shake his head and refuse them. He had been twisting a handkerchief in his hands throughout the party and Uma could not help noticing how dirty and ragged a piece of cloth it was. It made her look at the owner with a stir of sympathy, but when she did she could not see any sign that it was reciprocated.

19wandering_star
Jan. 9, 2018, 9:25am

Something which has been giving me a lot of pleasure recently is the Backlisted podcast. Each episode talks about a book which has been around for a little while but is perhaps under-appreciated or unknown. At first I only downloaded the episodes for books I'd read or was interested in, but I came to like the presenters' enthusiasm and wide range of interests so much I'm now listening my way through the entire back catalogue. Although I can't say that all the books they describe appeal to me, I haven't heard a boring episode yet. Highly recommended if you like bookish podcasts.

20wandering_star
Jan. 10, 2018, 7:59pm

>14 fannyprice: What you say about Norse Mythology makes perfect sense to me - I think I have several books on my TBR in the same category. Although sometimes if I leave it too long the excitement fades away and it's just another book waiting to be read, which seems a bit sad.

Good point too on the Connie Willis! ;-)

21thorold
Jan. 12, 2018, 5:03pm

>18 wandering_star: Fasting, feasting has been on my TBR shelf for ages - I think it got put aside because it looked as though it would be going over much the same ground as Clear light of day. Maybe it will stay there a bit longer now...

22wandering_star
Jan. 12, 2018, 9:29pm

>21 thorold: or you could just read the first 3/4 and skip the part about Arun in the US... The first part would definitely stand alone.

23wandering_star
Jan. 12, 2018, 9:39pm

5. The Embassy of Cambodia by Zadie Smith

This is a short story, published as a stand-alone book, with a clever cover design which imitates the Cambodian flag but with shuttlecocks instead of the picture of Angkor Wat which is on the real flag (the background of the story is the high-walled Cambodian Embassy in North London, where passers-by can often hear a game of badminton going on).

The whole story is available here (New Yorker - may need a subscription).

This is a deceptively simple story - I read it twice, because the first time through I couldn't quite find the centre. The second time I could definitely see a lot more going on, and I think it would reward further readings. The subject of the story is a young woman named Fatou, trafficked to the UK and working unpaid for a wealthy family. She doesn't think she is a slave, because she is allowed to go out of the house, although as she doesn't have any money she can only do things which are free, such as meeting a friend who is prepared to pay for her coffee, or using the family's guest pass to go swimming at a nearby spa (where the lighting is so low it's not obvious that she is swimming in her underwear, not a proper costume). One of the themes, and the reason I think why the Cambodian Embassy is used as a backdrop, is about how people treat each other, and the idea that there are perhaps whole groups of people who fall into the category of people who aren't worth being cared about or treated with humanity.

On the sixth of August, Fatou walked past the embassy for the first time, on her way to a swimming pool. It is a large pool, although not quite Olympic size. To swim a mile you must complete eighty-two lengths, which, in its very tedium, often feels as much a mental exercise as a physical one. The water is kept unusually warm, to please the majority of people who patronize the health center, the kind who come not so much to swim as to lounge poolside or rest their bodies in the sauna. Fatou has swum here five or six times now, and she is often the youngest person in the pool by several decades.

24dchaikin
Jan. 12, 2018, 10:02pm

>19 wandering_star: It kind of sounds you your are working the backlist of Backlisted. I wasn't familiar with the podcast, so noting. I'll check it out. Also, intrigued by Zadie Smith's short story.

25rachbxl
Jan. 13, 2018, 5:00am

>18 wandering_star: It’s ages since I read Fasting, Feasting, and I remembered it as unsatisfying without remembering why - but your review reminds me that it was exactly that, the tagged-on afterthought of the section about the brother. I couldn’t see why it was included at all.

26valkyrdeath
Jan. 13, 2018, 6:04pm

>23 wandering_star: I read Embassy of Cambodia a couple of years ago and remember thinking it was good but didn't have much impact on me. On the other hand, on your mentioning it I find I can remember a lot of the details about it still after all this time, so maybe it was more effective than I realised.

27wandering_star
Bearbeitet: Jan. 16, 2018, 10:45am

6. The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck

This book is about five versions of a woman's life. In Part 1, she dies as a baby, in Part 2 as an adolescent, and so on. In between each part there is a short 'Intermezzo' which rewinds the tape and identifies one or two small things which - if they had been different - would have meant that she survived.

In each version, it's not just her own life which changes but also the lives of her family - parents, grandmother, sister and children - as what happens to her has its impact on their choices and decisions. And in addition to showing us how one person's life can ripple through the lives of others, because our protagonist is a half-Jewish, half-Christian woman living in Central Europe during the middle years of the last century, we also see how war and political turmoil ripple through the lives of ordinary people, devastating a whole family or nudging one person to an unexpected decision.

The writing is very poetic, and philosophical about universal experiences without losing sight of the fact that the characters in the story are individual people. In Part 1, after the death of the baby girl, her father thinks, "Should he pull everyday life back on over his head now that he has understood it is nothing more than a garment?" And as for the mother,

...she will now sit here for seven days: because she has seen others sitting like this, but also because she wouldn't know where else to go while she is refusing to enter that inhuman place her child's room became last night. The customs of man are like footholds carved into inhumanity, she thinks, something a person who's been shipwrecked can clutch at to pull himself up, and nothing more.

The first half of this book was an almost perfect reading experience. In the second half of the book, the main character moves to the Soviet Union, works as a writer, and lives through (or not) Stalin's purges. I found this part less interesting than the first half, as it was more about politics and a bit less about human relationships. But overall still a highly recommended read.

28wandering_star
Bearbeitet: Jan. 16, 2018, 11:05am

7. American War by Omar El Akkad

This book is set in the aftermath of the second American Civil War, a war fought over the right to continue to use fossil fuels. It imagines a world in which the victorious North treats the remnant South in the way that, dare I say it, the US treats some other countries now - and shows us how an ordinary American can become radicalised under these circumstances.

He fed her the old mythology of her people — the South of Spanish moss and palmetto fronds; of magnolia trees dressed up in leaves of History and History's step-sister Apocrypha; of unmatched generosity and jubilant excess; of whole pigs smoked whole days and of peaches and pecans and key lime pie. She gorged on it all, delighted not only that such a world existed but that she held to it some ancestral claim. How much of it was real and how much pleasant fantasy didn't matter. She believed every word.

He said that her country once occupied the most fertile land in all of the world; mother of sugar and mother of cotton and mother of corn. He taught her about the first time the North had torn her country to shreds. He said people think of that war now the way they think about most wars: just a bunch of young men killing young men on the orders of old men. But he said it was women who were left to clean it all up in the end, women who rebuilt the scorched Southern country and nursed what was left of those young men. He said there were even some women who fought and killed, disguised themselves in the clothing of men if they had to. Women who defied.


I am afraid that for me, this book suffered from being read straight after the wonderful writing of The End of Days, and while I'm also reading a fantasy novel, The House of Shattered Wings, which is excellent at world-building and at revealing that world naturally through the course of the story, without big chunks of exposition. American War is an interesting thought experiment but I found it a bit of a slog to read.

29markon
Jan. 16, 2018, 2:28pm

>28 wandering_star: I stopped reading American War about half-way through in part because I could see where it was headed. As a thought experiment it intrigued me, but the writing and the plot aren't calling me back.

30thorold
Jan. 16, 2018, 3:48pm

>27 wandering_star: Glad you liked The end of days! Did you work out that it was all about her grandmother?

31wandering_star
Bearbeitet: Jan. 16, 2018, 7:55pm

>29 markon: I almost stopped as well, but I decided that I did want to see how the writer got to the end point. To be honest though, I don't find it a particularly insightful story of radicalisation, unless you've never ever thought about the process that might lead someone to taking that sort of action.

>30 thorold: I didn't realise that! I understand now why she chose that particular path in the woman's later years, rather than a more eventful option.

32dchaikin
Jan. 16, 2018, 9:18pm

love the quotes from both these reviews. Noting The End of Days, partially because of Mark's revelation, but especially because of your comments on the writing.

33wandering_star
Feb. 4, 2018, 5:04am

A busy couple of weeks - with a lot of travelling, which means time for reading but not for reviewing. So some of these might be a bit short.

8. Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan

Egan's follow-up to the prizewinning (and experimentally structured) A Visit From The Goon Squad, which I love. This is much more conventional in its structure, and its central metaphor (deep water=hidden things), although its central character Anna is not a conventional woman at all. We first meet her when she is accompanying her father, who we know is some sort of fixer, to a meeting with a powerful man. We don't find out for some time what this meeting is really about, but when we meet Anna as an adult, her father has mysteriously disappeared - having done what he could to leave the family's affairs in order. Anna meanwhile is working at the Brooklyn Naval Yard, where because of wartime, the range of jobs open to women is expanding. But what she really wants to do is be a diver, fixing the hulls of ships way below the waterline.

As the water closed around her, she rediscovered the sensation of being weightless. She felt the pull of the East River's infamous currents even on the ship's lee side. Down she went through soft fronds of daylight alongside the stupendous hull. Its sheer scale suggested violence. Anna wanted to touch it. Holding a rope of the stage, she swung her body toward the ship's hull and let her gloved hand slide over its outer shell while the stage pulled her down. Her skin prickled into gooseflesh. The ship felt alert, alive. It exuded a hum that traveled through her fingers up her arm: the vibration of thousands of souls teeming within. Like a skyscraper turned on its side.

Although not as great as Goon Squad, I always enjoy Egan's writing, and I very much enjoyed this.

34wandering_star
Feb. 4, 2018, 5:14am

9. Black Wings Has My Angel by Elliott Chaze

At the start, this feels like pure pastiche noir - a man, rich from four months on an oil rig, picks up a beautiful dame who herself is on the run from something. A few days into their encounter, she tries to steal his money - but he catches up with her, gets the money back, and involves her in planning for a heist. I say pastiche noir because this is from the 1950s, a decade or two after the height of noir - and because I think noir is such a distinctive style that it always borders on the parody. For example, here's part of their first encounter:

I sloshed her a bourbon on the rocks, using the bathroom glass and what was left of the ice. I made a lazy little ceremony of it, partly because the red-orange bourbon looked pretty as it thinned against the ice, and partly because I wanted the ice to dilute it a bit, and partly because my hands were clean for the first time in a long time and I liked the way the glass squeaked against my clean palms. "It's good," she said, not making a face the way most women do with raw whisky. "You mean it was good." "I could do with another."

However, the strong style disguises for a while that there is real emotion here - two damaged people who have found each other, and are staving off further damage for a short time. It reminded me of another recent read, Angels by Denis Johnson, although set 20 years earlier. Recommended.

35wandering_star
Feb. 4, 2018, 5:38am

10. The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard

Urban fantasy, set in a Paris devastated decades previously by a great war. This is a world where Fallen (fallen angels) live on earth, and their magical power is the only law. In this anarchy, the only structure is the great Houses - almost all headed by Fallen. The luckier humans, witches and minor immortals live within the Houses, which exist in an uneasy truce - all the more so after the total destruction of the war between the Houses. The less lucky humans have to try and stay alive without the protection of anyone else. As the book starts, a young ex-Immortal, Philippe, is brought into one of the Houses - against his will - after he is discovered trying to dismember a new Fallen for their magical parts. This is the House of Silver Spires, originally set up by the first and most powerful Fallen, Morningstar (in our world we know him as Lucifer). But Morningstar disappeared many years ago and the House is weaker now. When Philippe accidentally triggers a terrible curse on the house, it is an opportunity for the other Houses to try and seize more power.

A conclave. Every child in the city knew what a conclave meant, and how the previous one had ended—too many people with magical powers, too much pent-up rage and too many grievances. The Houses hadn’t meant to start a war; they’d just thought to use the opportunity to weaken a few rivals—except that the wrong people had died, compensation had been judged inadequate; and the fragile peace of the city had fractured into magical duels and assassinations that soon escalated into ranged battles and large-scale destruction spells. A conclave wasn’t safe, by any stretch of the imagination.

Honestly, I could probably cobble together a summary of the whole story, but that's not the point. I really enjoyed this, for the imagination of the world building and the lush description of the dark, fantastical surroundings. I didn't really need to understand what was going on at any particular time.

36wandering_star
Feb. 4, 2018, 5:54am

11. A Little Love, A Little Learning by Nina Bawden

A little learning is a dangerous thing. Kate, the narrator of this book, is twelve - old enough to overhear some adult things, but without understanding the seriousness of some of the things she knows. This is particularly the case as her beloved stepfather is the village doctor, and he and Kate's mother don't believe in being secretive or using euphemisms around their daughters, but talk to them as adults. However, it's 1953, and not everyone in the village is as open-minded. And Kate likes to be the centre of attention, even if this means exaggerating and stretching the information that she knows. At the same time, the household is being shaken up by a new member, sentimental 'Aunt Hat' (a friend of Kate's mother) who comes to stay while her husband is on trial for assault; and by the late teenage unhappiness of Kate's 18-year-old sister Joanna, who is failing at school and disappointed in love.

This is both a touching picture of a close-knit family, and a careful examination of the inner lives of teenage girls, with a light and often comic touch. But it also builds into something more serious, with a sense of real foreboding over the possible consequences of Kate's tall stories, combined with the maliciousness of some adults. There were moments when I had to put the book down and do something else to get away from the mounting tension over what seemed likely to happen.

Ellen took us to school that morning. We were late, but the odium we incurred on this account - lateness earned you a black mark for your house - was mitigated, for me, anyway, by the interesting rumours I was able to spread around in the dinner hour. (Living in a doctor's house had advantages for someone of my temperament: though Boyd never discussed his patients with us, we were often privy to excitements that gave us status.)

37wandering_star
Feb. 4, 2018, 10:00am

12. The Dressmaker by Rosalie Ham

This book was made into a film in 2015, starring Kate Winslet as Tilly, the dressmaker of the title - bullied and drummed out of her small Australian town as a child, she returns as an adult, not quite in triumph, but in defiance. The narrow-minded townspeople initially regard her with suspicion, but gradually, grudgingly come to realise that her skills as a dressmaker can transform them and their narrow lives.

I enjoyed the film but found the tone extremely uneven, so when I saw this book available in my library I thought I would have a look at the source material. It turned out that the unevenness of tone is right there in the book - from the jokey names of the townspeople (Reginald Blood the butcher, Prudence Dimm the schoolteacher etc) to the genuine brutality and abuse that some of them have been living with - until Tilly, perhaps, comes to deliver justice for everyone. In addition, the film manages to iron out a lot of the unevenness of the story, and make it hang together quite coherently - for example, the film builds a bit of tension around the mystery of Tilly's departure whereas in the book it's just unexplained, and then suddenly explained.

I'd recommend the film (if you don't mind a bit of whimsy) but probably not the book.

Lois Pickett had brought a drawing to Tilly and said, 'What about this?' Tilly looked briefly at the long-sleeved cuffed blouse with a neckline featuring a high stand-up collar and flounced peasant skirt, then made her a sculpted, floor-length black crepe gown with a lifted front hem which exposed her slim ankles.

38wandering_star
Feb. 4, 2018, 10:22am

13. A Murderous Procession by Ariana Franklin

The fourth (and last) in the Mistress of the Art of Death series of historical mysteries based around a twelfth-century female doctor and forensic investigator avant la lettre. I liked the first couple in the series, but largely because of the plucky character of Adelia, which after four books is not enough to sustain my interest. In this one, she is not doing any investigating - instead, she is accompanying the young Princess Joanna, daughter of King Henry II, to her wedding in Sicily - but someone in the party wishes her ill. The historical setting is interesting, taking in Cathars in southern France and the multicultural bustle of Sicily. But I find Adelia's character increasingly ahistorical, and I'm a bit fed up with books that purport to be historical but feature a main character with modern sensibilities - isn't one of the pleasures of books to help us see things through others' eyes?

'If Christianity isn't about tending the sick, what is it about?' 'It's not about Cathars calling us the Church of Satan, and refusing to pay their bloody tithes because they say we're all corrupted by riches.' A diamond flash of the bishop's seal ring on his finger as he gestured made Adelia's lips twitch; he saw it and tucked his hands into the folds of his excellent robe, like a boy whose fingers had been raiding a jam pot.

39BLBera
Feb. 4, 2018, 10:33am

>8 wandering_star: Tinderbox sounds great. The article was interesting, and I love books about the writing process.

>23 wandering_star: I will check out the Smith story; I'll read anything she writes. I have NW on my shelf and am hoping to read it this month.

>33 wandering_star: Comments on Manhattan Beach have been so interesting. I LOVED A Visit from the Goon Squad, and liked Manhattan Beach, but people who hated Good Squad seem to like Manhattan Beach because of the more traditional narrative structure. I hope for her next one, Egan goes outside the box again.

>27 wandering_star: I just read my first Erpenbeck, Go, Went, Gone, which is fantastic, so I will definitely be reading more work by her.

I loved Mistress of the Art of Death, but why do people have to make series, when stand alone books are perfectly fine?

40wandering_star
Feb. 4, 2018, 10:34am

14. Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli

Genuinely brief (they were originally written as newspaper columns), easy to read, and really did help me feel that I had a better understanding of some of the key, and most mind-bending, concepts of modern physics - from relativity and quantum mechanics to quantum gravity and elementary particles. Perhaps its most accurate to say that I had a better understanding of how fundamentally incomprehensible they are - I hadn't realised, for example, that both relativity and quantum mechanics explain the universe, but in ways that are mutually incompatible.

Does it seem absurd? It also seemed absurd to Einstein. On the one hand he proposed Heisenberg for the Nobel Prize, recognizing that he had understood something fundamental about the world; whilst on the other he didn’t miss any occasion to grumble that this did not make much sense.

What Rovelli is very good at is explaining the wonder of physics, and the joy (for him at least) of understanding that what we see of the world is not at all what there actually is. There is also a strong theme running through this of the value of science, and the scientific method - doubt, regular testing and the desire to constantly challenge what we think we know.

When we talk about the Big Bang or the fabric of space, what we are doing is not a continuation of the free and fantastic stories which humans have told nightly around campfires for hundreds of thousands of years. It is the continuation of something else: of the gaze of those same men in the first light of day looking at tracks left by antelope in the dust of the savannah – scrutinizing and deducting from the details of reality in order to pursue something which we can’t see directly but can follow the traces of. In the awareness that we can always be wrong, and therefore ready at any moment to change direction if a new track appears; but knowing also that if we are good enough we will get it right and will find what we are seeking. This is the nature of science. The confusion between these two diverse human activities – inventing stories and following traces in order to find something – is the origin of the incomprehension and distrust of science shown by a significant part of our contemporary culture. The separation is a subtle one: the antelope hunted at dawn is not far removed from the antelope deity in that night’s storytelling. The border is porous. Myths nourish science, and science nourishes myth. But the value of knowledge remains. If we find the antelope we can eat.

41markon
Feb. 5, 2018, 3:13pm

>40 wandering_star: I have tried to read Seven Brief Lessons in Physics twice, and always get distracted by something more "fun". I'm requesting it on CD this time, for a road trip at the end of next week. I can usually listen to non fiction well in the car. Thanks for reminding me of this one.

42fannyprice
Feb. 5, 2018, 5:08pm

>27 wandering_star:, The End of Days sounds kind of like Kate Atkinson's Life After Life, which I loved, so I'll definitely have to check this one out too.

It's too bad about American War - it was one of the best things I read last year, but I can see having to be in the right mood for it.

43dchaikin
Feb. 7, 2018, 10:25am

Finally tried Backlisted this am. I’m enjoying it, even though I’m 20 minutes in and they haven’t discussed the book yet. (And the one woman guest hasn’t said a thing yet, while others are talking their heads off)

Happy to read your review of Manhattan Beach. It wasn’t the structure of Goon Squad that made me like it, or the prose, but the way she developed that writer-reader relationship, if that makes sense. I just liked her. Looking forward to this.

I have my own bit a work-travel coming up (unusual for me) so I’m entertained by your slew of Sunday reviews. I might be doing something similar in two weeks. Welcome home.

44avaland
Feb. 19, 2018, 11:37am

I'm slow to get to this thread, but you've had some great reading. I enjoyed seeing your 2017 list also. I thought Golden Hill was a lot of fun. I was a bit surprised you gave 5 stars to Anubis Gates but it has been so very many years since I read it, perhaps I would have given it 5 stars also (I certainly enjoyed it, but can't remember if I loved it).

It's fascinating that at any one time in this group we are all reading such very different books*, all of which sound so interesting.

*we do, of course, sometimes sync and read the same books.

45auntmarge64
Bearbeitet: Feb. 22, 2018, 10:42pm

>40 wandering_star: I loved Seven Brief Lessons on Physics! This was one of my comments:

In the last chapter, the author waxes philosophical about the past and future of the human species, a summary which mirrored my own thoughts but expressed them more gently and succinctly than I could. "I believe that our species will not last long. It does not seem to be made of the stuff that has allowed the turtle, for example, to continue to exist more or less unchanged for hundreds of millions of years, for hundreds of times longer, that is, than we have even been in existence. We belong to a short-lived genus of species. All of our cousins are already extinct. What's more, we do damage. The brutal climate and environmental changes that we have triggered are unlikely to spare us."

And I thought the translation was gorgeous.

46wandering_star
Mrz. 9, 2018, 9:05am

Goodness - a month since I last posted. I think it's because my recent reading has been a little bit meh - nothing that I have very much to say about. But that's just changed with the wonderful 20. The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui, a graphic novel family memoir about her family's life in Vietnam and as refugees in the US.

I was expecting this to be a good story - which it was - but I wasn't expecting it to have so much personal resonance. Thi Bui is writing not just about her family but about the challenges in her relationship with her parents given everything they went through in Vietnam, and the fact that their emotional expectations are so different from hers, growing up in the US. My mother is Asian and my sister really struggles to understand that she has different ways of showing her feelings, for example (as with Thi Bui's mother) showing love through cooking, and through buying us things we don't really want but which she thinks are useful. All this gave the book an unexpected emotional weight for me. But I would recommend it to anyone, even without that.

47wandering_star
Bearbeitet: Mrz. 9, 2018, 9:39am

Had better catch up on the other stuff.

15. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson - Gothicky horror with unreliable narrator. I didn't find this particularly effective, as the creepiness is not very well sustained.

No human eye can isolate the unhappy coincidence of line and place which suggests evil in the face of a house, and yet somehow a maniac juxtaposition, a badly turned angle, some chance meeting of roof and sky, turned Hill House into a place of despair, more frightening because the face of Hill House seemed awake, with a watchfulness fro the blank windows and a touch of glee in the eyebrow of a cornice.

16. In Morningstar's Shadow by Aliette de Bodard, a few short stories set in the same world as The House of Shattered Wings, but earlier than the timeline of those stories. These were really thin - perhaps they make more sense if you've read other novels set in that world, and they fill in the early lives of the characters you know more fully. Certainly not worth it as stand-alone stories.

There was.... light; fire; pain. The world shrunk – became Morningstar's face; the chilling blue of his eyes, which was the blue of the Heavens in summer, in a season Paris didn't, couldn't remember in the endless years of the war–became the shadow of wings, sharp and cutting, the essence of blades–everything was sharp, with a smell she couldn't place, a sour thing that reminded her of churches left unopened for too long, mould and incense and the remnants of dust.

17. Sisters by Lily Tuck - a novella narrated by a second wife, speculating obsessively about her predecessor. Underwhelming.

Sometimes I wondered whether she had had boyfriends before they got married. Or was she a virgin? I also wondered whether men find deflowering a woman for the first time thrilling and satisfying. Or do they think it an onerous task?

I should have asked him but I didn’t.


18. milk and honey by Rupi Kaur - short, highly personal poems, divided into four sections: the hurting/the loving/the breaking/the healing. Kaur was one of the first 'insta-poets' (developing a following posting her poetry on Instagram) and there is a considerable emotional punch in these poems.



19. The Poisoned Chocolates Case by Anthony Berkeley

An entertaining Golden Era mystery, structured around a group of friends with an enthusiastic amateur interest in crime. A murder has happened, the police are stumped, and they decide that each of them will present a case for whodunnit. And one after another, they all present cases which sound perfectly convincing, but all highlight different people as the murderer.

Sir Eustace in short, without doubt, was a thoroughly bad baronet. But his vices were all on the large scale, with the usual result that most other men, good or bad, liked him well enough (except perhaps a few husbands here and there, or a father or two), and women openly hung on his husky words.

48wandering_star
Bearbeitet: Mrz. 13, 2018, 10:54am

Help, I forgot one, which should be 19. Djinn City by Saad Z Hossain

Epic urban fantasy set in Bangladesh. I especially enjoyed the world-building (djinns exist, enjoy Byzantine political plotting, and have a social hierarchy based on 'dignatas' - essentially, a combination of power and chutzpah. So you might attempt to take on a djinn much more powerful than you - even if you lost, you would gain dignatas from the sheer craziness of the attempt). A bit too long and complicated, but good fun.

A heavy fist grabbed Indelbed by the neck, literally swinging him around. He looked into the face of a bald, glitter-skinned man, squat and powerful, somehow toad-like. His mouth glinted with something unpleasant. In his gut, with the absolute certainty of a child, Indelbed knew that this was, at last, the promised djinn.

49valkyrdeath
Mrz. 11, 2018, 6:31pm

The Best We Could Do sounds interesting. I'm making a note to check that one out. I've been really enjoying graphic memoirs recently.
Also, I bought a copy of The Poisoned Chocolates Case recently and am looking forward to reading it shortly. Glad to hear it's entertaining.

50wandering_star
Mrz. 13, 2018, 11:07am

22. The Dream Life of Astronauts by Patrick Ryan

Nine short stories, all set on Merritt Island, adjacent to Cape Canaveral. All but the last two are set in the 1970s, and rocket launches (along with political events such as Watergate) form the backdrop to the events of the stories.

These are far from glamorous dream lives, though - most of the main characters seem to be desperate for adventure and escape, but their dreams are doomed to failure. About the best thing that happens to anyone in these stories is that a family member comes through for them in a time of difficulty, against all the odds.

They are beautifully written, with lots going on under the surface (particularly in the stories narrated by teenagers, which is the majority).

"Miss America", for example, starts like this: On the Wednesday that I'm supposed to go with Emerald to meet the talent scout, I get home from school and find a box that comes up to my knee sitting out by the curb where we put the trash. Wednesday is not trash day. The box isn't taped up or even closed, and when I dig through it I see a stack of Tom Clancy paperbacks, our crockpot, and a framed eight-by-ten photograph of my mother and stepfather, dressed up and smiling in front of the Polynesian Hotel at Disney World. Their wedding portrait. As I walk into the house, I hear what sounds like chains being rattled. My mother is in the kitchen rifling through the silverware drawer.

Definitely recommended for anyone who likes short stories.

51wandering_star
Mrz. 17, 2018, 4:45am

23. The Secret Place by Tana French

Tana French writes psychological thrillers - but the twist is that it's the psychology of the detective, not the criminal, which she is examining. Here, our narrator detective is stuck in Cold Cases, a department which is not going to bring him the career advancement he longs for.

So when he gets a piece of new evidence in a case which is only lukewarm - the year-old murder of a teenage boy in the grounds of a girls' school - he parlays this into an opportunity to partner with a detective from the Murder Squad.

Another element of his psychology which is relevant to his approach to the case is that he is someone who has always been a loner, partly because of a sense that having friends would drag him down - and the case revolves around the intense friendship of teenage girls.

His story - a day of interviews, looking for new clues and trying to solve the puzzle - alternates with the story of a group of four friends, schoolgirls at the school, in the months leading up to the murder. These sections reminded me a bit of Megan Abbott's stories of teenage girls and their dangerous sexuality, although in this book it's much clearer that the sexuality is as much of a challenge for the girls as it is a weapon - they need to get used to the way that people see their new teenage bodies and project expectations and thoughts onto them. "This mix of roaring rage and a shame that stains every cell, this crawling understanding that now their bodies belong to other people’s eyes and hands, not to them: this is something new." These girls take power from rejecting the need to pay attention to those expectations, rather than pandering to them.

Quite a long book but I blazed through it, enjoying both the detection and the affecting story of the girls' friendship.

52NanaCC
Mrz. 17, 2018, 9:58pm

I really like Tana French’s books. They pull me in every time. Hoping for a new one soon.

53wandering_star
Mrz. 17, 2018, 10:00pm

24. Mr Norris Changes Trains by Christopher Isherwood

Berlin, at the start of the 1930s. Arthur Norris is a con-man, and later on a spy. He is a monstrously comic character, who reminded me of Ignatius J Reilly from A Confederacy of Dunces in the way he was both annoying and compelling. This book was published in 1935 and apparently Isherwood later felt that it was a naive depiction of the time. It's true that the comic foreground sits slightly oddly with the occasional glimpses of the Nazi rise to power. But there is a clear sense of the febrile atmosphere of Berlin at the time, and it seems harsh to criticise Isherwood for not guessing the horrors that were to come. I found the book funny, if a little thin.

He had money enough to last him, according to the standards of social London in the nineties, for at least ten years. He spent it in rather less than two. 'It was at that time,' said Arthur, 'that I first learnt the meaning of the word "luxury". Since then, I am sorry to say, I have been forced to add others to my vocabulary; horrid ugly ones, some of them.'

54chlorine
Mrz. 18, 2018, 4:21am

Still reading and enjoying your reviews. The poem by Rupi Kaur is great. Makes me want to get to the book but I'm reluctant to read poetry other than in my mother tongue, for some reason.

55fannyprice
Mrz. 18, 2018, 12:56pm

>51 wandering_star:, Great comparison between The Secret Place and Megan Abbott's books.

56wandering_star
Mrz. 23, 2018, 7:58pm

>54 chlorine: If you were going to read some poetry in English I think she'd be a good place to start, as the impact of her poetry comes more from the raw and direct emotion than from anything about the language or imagery.

57wandering_star
Mrz. 23, 2018, 8:20pm

25. Commonwealth by Ann Patchett

This is a story of two families, over the course of five decades. Their story is structured around two key events. The first event starts the novel - it is a christening party where a man - who barely knows the family and has only come along because he can't bear to be with his own wife and children for an entire weekend - falls for the mother of the baby being christened, and they share a kiss. Eventually these two leave their partners and marry, linking the two families together. The second event is something we only gradually find out the truth about - the death of one of the sons from a bee sting, on a day when he is out playing with his siblings and step-siblings. Or perhaps it's three events - because a decade or so later, the step-sister of the boy that died (who is the child who was being christened at the fateful party) is dating a famous writer and tells him the story of the death - and he turns it into a best-selling novel, and later a film - something else which has repurcussions through the life of the family.

The book touches on themes around the impact of coincidences, the ownership of stories and especially the positive and destructive power of family ties. But really I was here for the writing - I am in awe of Patchett's writing ability.

Yes, there was a tremendous amount of money but it flowed from a single river and into countless tributaries. He already had one ex-wife, truly divorced and behind him, to whom he paid a significant alimony, as well as payments to the wife who should have been his second ex-wife. She cost him a fortune. His daughter from the first marriage always needed money because she needed so much more than money but money was the easiest way for her to express those needs, and then there were two sons from the second marriage who refused to speak to him at all—one a sophomore at Kenyon and the other a junior at Harvard-Westlake in Los Angeles. Their tuition, along with their every wish, was Leo’s command.

58wandering_star
Bearbeitet: Mrz. 26, 2018, 9:11pm

26. Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill

This novella tells the story of a relationship - from first meeting, through marriage, baby, infidelity and after. It is told in short paragraphs - a few sentences at most. Some of them are directly about the marriage:

The baby's eyes were dark, almost black, and when I nursed her in the middle of the night, she'd stare at me with a stunned, shipwrecked look as if my body were the island she'd washed up on.

Others not:

A thought experiment courtesy of the Stoics. If you are tired of everything you possess, imagine that you have lost all these things.

Just as in a comic book the story happens in the gaps between the frames, here the story happens in the gaps between the paragraphs. It's very cleverly done, and a pleasure to read, and somehow also more moving, as if some of the facts and emotions are too powerful to allude to directly. A really remarkable work.

59ELiz_M
Mrz. 25, 2018, 10:19am

>58 wandering_star: nice review, captures the experience of this book perfectly.

60BLBera
Mrz. 26, 2018, 4:00pm

>57 wandering_star: Great comments on Commonwealth. I loved that one as well; I thought the portrayal of a blended family was wonderful.

>58 wandering_star: This one sounds great as well. I will add it to my WL.

61wandering_star
Apr. 11, 2018, 10:55am

27. A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers

The sequel to The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, which I read a year or so ago, and loved. Where the first book was epic, this has a tighter focus. It's the story of two people - hold up, not people - it is the story of two beings who wouldn't normally be considered people (one AI, and one clone) and how each of them comes to be able to live as an individual. I missed the world-building and complexity of the first in the series, but enjoyed this nevertheless - there are touches of that cleverness for example in the way the AI never refers to 'herself' but calls her body 'the kit'. I hope though that the next book (not out yet) will return to the larger scale of the first one.

Sidra had decided forty-six minutes prior that she liked alcohol. It had no cognitive effect on her, but there was such an incredible variety of concoctions to choose from, and they all triggered separate images. As her companions and their friends got ever louder and happier, she enjoyed someone else’s memories of boats, fireworks, rainbows. She wasn’t sure how much she enjoyed alcohol’s effect on other sapients, though.

62wandering_star
Apr. 11, 2018, 11:03am

28. The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami

A short story published as a stand-alone work, in which the pictures and images are almost as important as the text.



This is what I imagine Haruki Murakami's dreams are like - all the tropes are here from cats to mysterious underground spaces to enigmatic beautiful women.

63wandering_star
Apr. 11, 2018, 11:27am

29. Peking Picnic by Ann Bridge

Ann Bridge was married to a British diplomat, and this story, set in the Western community in 1920s Beijing, appears to draw a lot from her own experience. (I imagine she saw some of herself in the heroine, a diplomat's wife, who is soulful, beautiful and wise).

The picnic of the title is one which a large group of foreigners plan to have on a jaunt outside Beijing - the whole party heads out of the city, expecting to pick up some donkeys at the point where the road becomes impassable for them, and head on up to a mountain temple to enjoy the scenery. But there is plenty of foreshadowing that they will run into trouble - this is the warlord era and bands of soldiers are grouping and regrouping in the countryside.

At this point I expected that the book would feature some peril for the group, and would focus on how they responded to it. But that's not quite what happened. The book is a funny mix. There is some absolutely wonderful writing about the city of Beijing and the surrounding countryside. The portrayal of the foreign community, and their attempts to understand the shifting politics of the time, is interesting and displays quite a lot of sympathy towards the Chinese and Chinese culture. The same can't be said for the boys-own bits of the story, in which the Chinese soldiers are essentially depicted as children who can be faced down with some British phlegm. But the oddest thing of all is that the main focus of the book is the blossoming of romance between two young couples who are on the trip, and how different cultural assumptions (US/UK and UK/French) play out through these. And in a way this is the most dated part of the book - because nothing about it resonates to a modern reader.

I did find this an interesting read, but would hesitate to recommend it.

Outside the Hsi-pien-men a stretch of green and stagnant water lies at the Wall's very foot. A file of camels had been halted to drink there on its way into the city, and the strange creatures were stooping their heads to the water, and raising them to swallow, with that same clumsy and compelling rhythm which they show in walking. Thick furry brown felt reached to their knees like plus-fours, and clothed most of their bodies; from it their spindly shanks, improbable swan necks and double humps emerged bare and grey. These winter coats were melting in patches, but camel's hair is valuable, and the loose bits were looped up and tied on with odds and ends of string, which gave to each a curiously disordered appearance, as of a badly done-up brown paper parcel. Yet their matchless dignity and timeless beauty of outline triumphed over this disability; philosophers in rags, they drank slowly, taking their time, while the drivers squatted on the muddy margin of the canal, smoking and exchanging news with the vegetable sellers who were washing their salads, cabbages and neat bundles of garlic, in the filthy water, before taking them in to the market.

64wandering_star
Apr. 17, 2018, 12:27pm

30. The Keep by Jennifer Egan

This is Jennifer Egan's third novel, and the one which preceded her best-known work, A Visit From the Goon Squad. It starts as a young man, Danny, arrives at a castle in the middle of the night. The castle is somewhere in Central Europe - and Danny is disoriented by his journey from New York, a city where he feels most at home, but one he had to leave because he'd pissed off the wrong people. It's pitch dark and he can't find his way into the castle, so he starts trying to clamber up into one of the towers. As he's exploring, we realise that his story is being written by someone in a writing class - although it's an unusual writing class because he isn't able to leave.

That's the first chapter. It contains the seeds of most of the elements which characterise the book. A sense of dreamlike menace, which is somehow a combination of Gothic and Kafka. An unusual nested structure. And an odd echo - someone who can't get into a building and someone who can't get out.

Jennifer Egan is a remarkably talented and innovative writer. Having read this, I'm even more surprised that her latest book, Manhattan Beach, had such a conventional structure - although I did hear an interview with her where she said that she'd approached that book with lots of unusual ideas and the story wouldn't fit itself to them. I'm not convinced that The Keep completely makes sense. But I enjoyed reading it - the story, the characters, the atmosphere, the way she writes. And it's not like anything else you will read.

And power was something Danny understood - this was one of a slew of skills he'd picked up in New York after years of study and training and practice, skills that combined to make a résumé so specialized it was written out in invisible ink, so that when his pop (for example) took a look, all he saw was a blank sheet of paper. Danny could walk in a room and know who had power the way some people know from the feel of the air that it's going to snow.

65wandering_star
Bearbeitet: Apr. 17, 2018, 12:45pm

31. Man with a Seagull on his Head by Harriet Paige

One day, a man walking on the beach is struck on the head by a falling seagull. A passing woman sees it happen.

The man was already a loner and although not explicitly stated, it's implied he is somewhere on the autistic spectrum. Struck by the beauty of the image in front of him when the seagull hits him - a woman standing in front of the sea - he returns home and obsessively reproduces it, first with conventional materials, and then when they run out, with whatever he can find at home (such as baked beans, smeared onto a wall). Through a series of coincidences he comes to the attention of a wealthy couple who collect outsider artists - they showcase his work and adopt him into their home, and he becomes famous. Years later, there is a major retrospective of his work at a gallery in London - and a local journalist remembers the story of the seagull and tracks down the woman, his original inspiration.

An odd, but interesting, novella. It relies too much on coincidences (there are more later on), but there are some interesting ideas here around art, and the ownership of art - particularly for the outsider artists, whose work is often the project of an obsessive mind until someone with an 'expert' eye picks it up and brings it to a wider audience. I had similar thoughts a couple of years ago when I went to the Joseph Cornell exhibition at the Royal Academy in London.

She felt a little drunk. A giddy kind of feeling as if the world had loosened its grip, letting her reel a little, unsupported. Her life felt suddenly light around her shoulders, as though she might wriggle out of it. She wasn’t sure she liked it. She’d always enjoyed the feeling of being held in: a good secure waistband around her stomach, a buttoned-up tailored jacket, tightly laced shoes. Marriage, she always thought, would feel much the same: like a well-fitting skirt suit. At the best times, it did. How appropriate and valid she sometimes felt when, moving about the kitchen, say, she remembered herself a wife. But she found there was still plenty of room inside for loneliness, for regrets.

66janeajones
Apr. 17, 2018, 10:38pm

30 and 31> Both these novels seem like dreamscapes -- which I am intrigued by.

67wandering_star
Apr. 18, 2018, 8:47pm

>66 janeajones: - that's a good point. They did both share a slightly off-centre perspective on the world.

68wandering_star
Apr. 18, 2018, 8:58pm

32. Dead Lions by Mick Herron

The second in the series of spy thrillers based around the "slow horses" of Slough House, a place where washed-up, incompetent or unlucky (but unsackable) spies are sent, to do tedious paperwork until they get so bored they quit. Of course, as they are off the books of the main office, they might be useful resources for an ambitious spy who wants to land a big fish without his superiors being aware of the operation. At the same time, the head of Slough House, Jackson Lamb, is figuring out what happened to one of his former staff members to leave him dead on a rail replacement bus service in the Cotswolds, when he was normally never to be found over an hour from his regular pub.

I did enjoy reading this despite occasionally clunky humour and the rather overwrought plot.

The Russian opened a drawer and found cigarette papers and a packet of tobacco, embossed with rich brown curly writing. Rolling a prisoner’s pinch into a thin smoke, he asked Lamb, ‘You here to kill me?’ ‘I hadn’t given it any thought,’ Lamb said. ‘You deserve killing?’ Katinsky considered. ‘Lately, not so much,’ he said at last.

69wandering_star
Apr. 19, 2018, 11:07am

33. Browse: the world in bookshops, edited by Henry Hitchings

A collection of 15 essays, themed around bookshops and the essay authors' life in reading. A really nice variety of locations - London and New York of course, but also Cairo and Nairobi, Beijing and Bogota. Also a wide variety of styles - although some common themes that come through, there are many book obsessives within these pages, and a few laments on a world which reads less and less. In fact, most of them are about rarity in one way or another - the serendipitous finds in second-hand bookshops, the committed individuals who keep on running a bookshop despite their shrinking customer base, the thrill of finding a book which is perfect for you.

Three of the essays are about bookshops which I know - Ali Smith writes about the Books for Amnesty second-hand shop in Cambridge, which I pop into everytime I'm passing, and where she apparently sometimes works (!) - and Ian Sansom writes about Foyles in London. But I would certainly never have expected that the penultimate essay would be Iain Sinclair writing about a small second-hand bookshop down the road from where my best friend lived when I was at school!

I didn't love every essay in the book, but overall it's a nice collection.

We met, sometimes, mother and I, within timeless words dreamed by others. We played tag in worlds inhabited by letter-created djinns, and phantoms and elves and hobbits too. A child, a daughter among many, craving the many ways a mother, also a teacher, expresses her "I love yous". We met in variegated worlds made from the words of so many authors ... These peddled worlds inside worlds, within which Nairobi, the city, Kileleshwa, the suburb, could be subsumbed by orcs, ogres, talking trees, Noddy and boy and girl sleuths. Mother brought home these books once a month. They came wrapped in brown packages and were stamped "Westlands Sundries".

70wandering_star
Apr. 20, 2018, 11:12am

34. Winter by Ali Smith

A quick review of this before I go on an extended work trip.

In Winter, a man named Art goes to visit his mother for Christmas. He's recently broken up with his girlfriend, and feels it's too complicated a situation to explain to his mother (they don't have that close a relationship), so somehow he winds up offering money to a young woman he doesn't know, if she will come along and pretend to be Charlotte for a few days. When they arrive, though, his mother has clearly been experiencing some sort of breakdown, and uncertain of how to handle it, the two end up calling his aunt, Iris, who comes to help even though she's had a difficult relationship with her sister. The relationship has been difficult because Iris is politically active - radically so - having been one of the Greenham Common women in the 1980s and now spending her spare time on Greek islands helping newly arrived migrants. Sophia, on the other hand, likes beauty (art, poetry, design) and business and has always found her sister infuriatingly unrealistic.

This being Ali Smith, though, both sisters manage to be sympathetic characters. However, it's clear where her sympathies lie. Lux (the woman who is pretending to be Charlotte) is an immigrant, working a marginal job, suffering from the post-Brexit mood of the UK - although this is only a small aspect of who she is. And it becomes clear that the point of the Greenham Common backstory is that all the women were seen as crazies when they started, but they actually did manage to change things and now have a much more positive place in history. In one section on the protestors, Smith writes:

They think of themselves, the protestors, as wakers of sleepers. They consider the millions of people in the world who can't see the danger as snowblind or like explorers in a polar region about to make the mistake of lying down and going to sleep in the snow; books about them afterwards will comment on how this is one of the analogies the protesters like most to use when it comes to trying to describe to the world the urgency of what they're doing. Close your eyes and you're dead.

Close your eyes to the humanity of those around you, to the suffering, to the impact of your selfishness, and you're dead.

One caveat about this: I started reading it very soon after finishing Autumn, and I think that was a bad idea. The two books have a very distinctive style and structure. Reading the first one it felt very innovative and unusual - but reading the second one so soon afterwards felt samey. I put the book aside for a few months, and when I came back to it I was able to appreciate the style again.

71fannyprice
Apr. 20, 2018, 5:31pm

>64 wandering_star:, The Keep sounds so fun!

72wandering_star
Apr. 22, 2018, 4:02am

>71 fannyprice: Yes, it was!

35. The Strangler Vine by MJ Carter

India, 1830s. A young and hapless British soldier is given a new assignment - to accompany an eccentric Company agent upcountry in search of a famous writer, who has disappeared without a trace. There are many strange things about the assignment - the young man, Ensign Avery, has no apparent skills that make him suitable for the job - he's told that part of his assignment is to keep an eye on the leader of the mission, Jeremiah Blake - and Blake himself is an odd fish, with a vast range of disguises, no social skills, and a talent for working things out from tiny clues.

Does that remind you of anyone? This is billed as a Holmes and Watson set in the exciting Orient, but in fact it's not so much a mystery as a boys-own adventure story, as Blake and Avery get themselves into various dangerous situations.

It's actually pretty good as a historical adventure novel - hitting the same effective notes as the Sharpe series, but without all the battles. And a good take on the evils of the East India Company (one of the notes in the relationship between Blake and Avery is the young man's idealistic patriotism, versus the older man's cynicism). But as a mystery story it felt very much like a prequel which gives us the backstory of the main characters after we have got invested in them from reading other books - I'm surprised it was the first book in the series to be published. There is a chapter of the second book included at the end of this one, and that feels more like a proper mystery.

The Rao said, "My opponents planned well indeed. My household is penetrated, and who can I trust? Not the Company. If I were to die before little Arjuna is anointed, the Company would sweep us into the Bengal presidency for lack of an heir." Now I burst out. "Sir, that is completely untrue and an abominable impugning of our and the Company's honour! Our deeds should show our intentions! We sought only to help!" The room seemed to become uncomfortably quiet the guards quietest of all, as if awaiting a word from their master. Even the parrot looked up. I had perhaps overstepped the mark.

73kidzdoc
Apr. 23, 2018, 8:39pm

Nice reviews, Margaret. I purchased the Kindle edition of The Best We Could Do not long ago, because of your comments about it, and because several of my closest friends from medical school emigrated from Vietnam, mainland China and Taiwan as young children, and because of the similarity of names of the author and my friend and colleague Thuy Bui, who is one of my favorite emergency medicine physicians in the hospital I work at.

I hope to get to Winter in June, before or after my trip to Portugal and Spain.

74wandering_star
Mai 7, 2018, 5:04am

36. An Experiment in Love by Hilary Mantel

London, 1970. Carmel McBain arrives at her university halls of residence - the first of three young women from her school in Lancashire who will be living there that year. The warden tells her, as the first to arrive, she can choose who to share with. She quickly picks one. It was not so much that I wanted Julianne's company, or thought that she might want mine. She would be indifferent to it; if you'd asked her who she'd like for a room-mate, she'd have said, 'Have you got any men?' But what she would say if through my neglect or failure of nerve she found herself waking up every day in the same room as Karina?

From here the story goes in two directions, one about life in the halls of residence and the other about Carmel's childhood, her friendship with Karina and Julianne. The first story is mainly about trying to find your place in a world which is dominated by money and men - or at least, attractiveness to men. Carmel has barely enough money to last her the term, and one of the most humiliating things that happens is that suddenly, miniskirts go completely out of style, and she can't afford to buy a longer skirt - somehow this highlights the fact that she is only fitting in at the halls of residence because of her roommate, who is from a much wealthier background. The childhood story is more complex, about the shifting relationships between Carmel and Karina (both scholarship girls at the school, living in the same poor neighbourhood) and Julianne.

Julianne sat behind me, in every successive class; she had her friends, among the bold and the pretty, and I had mine among the mice. Sometimes I sensed within myself - sometimes I felt it strongly - a will, a pull towards frivolity. I wanted to separate myself from the common fate of girls who are called Carmel, and identify myself with girls with casual names, names which their parents didn't think about too hard. I wanted to elect pleasure, not duty, and to be happy, and to have an expectation of happiness.
I think now that this is the great division between people. There are people who find life hard and those who find it easy. There are those who have a natural, inbuilt, expectation of happiness, and there are those who feel that happiness is not to be expected: that it is not, in fact, one of the rights of man. Nor, God knows, one of the rights of women.


This passage doesn't touch on Karina's name, but it shows her foreignness (her parents are Eastern European) and - perhaps - the similarity in the first syllable is a hint that Carmel risks being seen as in the same group of people as Karina, and the social exclusion that would follow - for Karina is something of a figure of fun in the halls of residence. The back cover of the book hints at tragedy to come, and when it does happen it is not at all what I expected. In fact I initially found it implausible, although thinking back over the book perhaps a closer reading would have foreshadowed it.

I often find early Hilary Mantel books a bit disconcerting. The writing is always great but sometimes I feel that there is no 'there' there - I can't quite work out what the point of the book is. That's how I feel about An Experiment in Love. I also feel that if I re-read it knowing the ending I would spot more clues this time round. I haven't quite decided yet whether to do that.

75wandering_star
Mai 7, 2018, 5:27am

37. Hearts and Minds by Amanda Craig

The interlocking lives of five Londoners. Job is a minicab driver, an illegal immigrant from Zimbabwe, where he was a teacher. Anna is a young Ukrainian who came to London (again, illegally) believing that she had a job as a chambermaid. Ian is a white South African teacher, who partly came to the UK because of the British father he had never met, but he's not yet made contact with his father. Katie is an American, with an administrative job at a magazine, but her life in London is not what she originally planned. Polly is a British Jewish human rights lawyer.

Craig has chosen a group of individuals with different social statuses and levels of belonging. This enables her to use the story to look at the UK from the outside (one of the bits of the book I liked best was the way that the non-Brits see things about London and Britain which a British person might not notice), to talk about the contributions immigrants make both socially and economically, and to think about what it means to belong. For example, Job doesn't really fit in at the minicab office because everyone else is South Asian, so he keeps a second job at a carwash - even worse paid, but his colleagues are all African and they feel like friends. Katie arrived with a borrowed social status as the fiancee of a wealthy upper class American, but having broken off the engagement is in a sort of social limbo.

I liked the way that the stories nested together, and the fact that the book looks sympathetically at the lives of people who are often not noticed. The quality of the writing is great. But unfortunately, even the major characters brush against stereotypes, the minor characters even more so. Nothing that anyone does in this book will surprise you.

The A-Z is one of those examples of order and helpfulness that underpin British life. Job likes looking at it, just as a work of art. He loves the roads warning you to SLOW, the pedestrian crossings, the traffic lights, and even the speed cameras. Everyone else hates them, because they have not, as Job has, lived and driven in a place without law.

76wandering_star
Mai 8, 2018, 5:10am

38. Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong

Ruth has agreed to live with her parents for a year, to support her mother as her father's Alzheimer's worsens. It's not exactly what she wants to do, but she recently broke up with her boyfriend - she thought they were preparing to move in together but in fact he was preparing to leave. And since she dropped out of college in order to be with him, her job is something that she can walk away from. So she agrees to her mother's request. At first, her father is so resentful of the idea that he needs looking after that he refuses to come out of his room. But gradually he is coaxed into a semblance of normality, including (in a very touching way) by his former students who gather for unofficial classes with him, even though he has been let go from his job as a college lecturer. Ruth's parents also have a complicated relationship, as Ruth's father had been an alcoholic who had had a number of affairs. For these reasons Ruth's brother Linus hasn't been home for years, and won't even talk to his father.

This could have been a pretty depressing book, but Rachel Khong keeps the tone light. Her focus really is on the small details which seem insignificant at the time but which make up a deep relationship. For example, when Ruth was a child her father kept a notebook of the cute things she said or did: "Today, when I told you to behave, you roared angrily: I'M BEING HAVE". It's also about the way that families can say important things to each other without words:

"How is he?" Linus says, finally. This is after three beers. He's put his library DVD of One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest on TV. He asks the question while juggling the socks he's rolled into balls. I know it's a hard question for Linus to ask. The socks mean he can't ask me straight. I want to dignify it with a response befitting the courage he's mustered, but all I can manage is, "He's fine." Linus knows what I mean: that he's his stubborn self - unwilling to accept help.

And it's about love, and memories.

I did enjoy reading this, although one downside of the light approach is that the emotional weight - of Ruth's breakup, and of the awfulness of seeing her father's deterioration - is a bit lost, which means I didn't particularly care about the characters.

77dchaikin
Mai 8, 2018, 7:09am

Three great reviews, and books.

78lisapeet
Mai 8, 2018, 10:53pm

>76 wandering_star: I liked Goodbye, Vitamin's gentle take on the dark humor of a situation like Ruth's. Because that's such a lifesaver when you're up to your ears in hard stuff like caregiving, finding the small things to laugh about or focus on their humanity. That kind of black humor can be done so heavy-handedly, though, and Khong had a nice light touch with it.

79wandering_star
Mai 22, 2018, 12:04pm

>78 lisapeet: Yes, good point!

39. Somewhere Towards The End by Diana Athill

Diana Athill is the famous person I'd most like to be friends with, based on her memoirs and other autobiographical writing, which are smart, engaging and wise. This slim book is made up of musings on getting older (she was 91 when it was published) - it starts with story about buying a tree fern, and being sad when what was delivered was not a full-grown fern but a seedling, making her think that she'd never see it as she'd imagined it. It ends though with a comment about how much the fern has grown while she was writing the book. "I was right in thinking that I will never see it being a tree, but I underestimated the pleasure of watching it be a fern."

I wouldn't recommend this as the first of her books to try - it's a little thin - although there are a few lovely insightful bits and it was worth reading the whole thing for this single sentence about the writer Jean Rhys: "No one questions that her actual writing - the way she uses words - is wonderful, but some people can't be bothered with her ruthlessly incompetent heroines, or rather 'heroine' in the singular because the 'Jean Rhys woman' is always the same."

80avaland
Mai 30, 2018, 7:39pm

>70 wandering_star: Very nice review of Winter. I haven't read Ali Smith in quite a long while and am so tempted.

81wandering_star
Bearbeitet: Jun. 2, 2018, 4:56am

40. Birds of a Lesser Paradise by Megan Mayhew Bergman

The second book of short stories I've read by Bergman. Like Almost Famous Women, which was one of my favourite books of last year, the stories in this collection have a loose thematic link - in this case, the way that human beings interact with animals, and echoes between their lives and ours.

For example, in the first story, there is an unhappy family and there are animals who refuse to escape from captivity when they have the chance to do so. In "Saving Face", a vet who was beautiful until she was savaged by an animal she was treating is begged not to put down an injured calf.

Although the writing is as good, I didn't like these stories as much as those in Almost Famous Women - the linkages between the human and animal existences often seemed a bit overdone, particularly because they were there in every story. Also, in almost every story there is a significant sentence, which seems to stand out from the story around it and gave me the feeling that the story was written to work up to that line - eg, "My mother once told me: Never underestimate avoidance as an effective coping mechanism."

I did however like the epigraph, a quote from On The Origin of Species - "We will now discuss in a little more detail the Struggle for Existence."

Last week I'd seen a hawk fly onto a branch, wings massive and gray, and snatch a squirrel from a maple. I'd watched, helpless, as the yellow-eyed bird sank his claws into the writhing grey body, brought it to the frozen ground. The squirrel had made a sound that stayed in my ears for days. The bird had concentrated on his kill, eyes wide as if he were straining to get the job done. I yelled and charged him, but he would not be moved. He flew when satisfied, carried the squirrel's limp body across the field and into the trees.

The best predators, I realised, had no empathy.


82wandering_star
Jun. 2, 2018, 5:21am

41. Circe by Madeline Miller

A wonderful retelling of the life of Circe, the enchantress famous for turning lost seafarers into pigs, and for hosting Odysseus for a year during his journey back to Ithaca. But there are many snippets of her story throughout the corpus of Greek myth, and Miller pulls these together into a full life story - deliberately limiting Odysseus' stay to two chapters, just as Circe takes up two books of the Odyssey. So Circe turns the nymph Scylla into a ferocious sea monster, witnesses the birth of the Minotaur and has an affair with Daedalus, as well as bringing up the son Odysseus leaves her with.

It's a wonderfully imagined story - with real tactile detail, for example in the descriptions of the wateryness of Circe's uncles (her mother is a water nymph) or the physical impact of having Helios, the god of the Sun (and Circe's father) angry with you: His skin flared white. White as the fire's heart, as purest, hottest coals. He stood, yet he kept on rising, as if he would tear a hole in the ceiling, in the earth's crust, as if he would not cease until he scraped the stars. And then the heat came, rolling over me with a sound like roaring waves, blistering my skin, crushing the breath from my chest. I gasped, but there was no air. He had taken it all.

The theme of the book is really power - the power of the gods and titans, the power that men have over women. And how people choose to exercise that power. Circe has certain magical powers, but unlike the gods she feels very human guilt about the impact that she has.

Of course, a positive retelling of a woman with a notorious story will have modern, feminist overtones - particularly in 2018 - for example Circe tells Apollo, "I will not be silenced on my own island" and he replies, "Hermes said that you were difficult". (This nods to another theme too - who gets to tell your story).

But quite apart from that, this is a great story, with compelling characters.

83wandering_star
Jun. 15, 2018, 9:21pm

42. The Geek Feminist Revolution by Kameron Hurley

A collection of blog posts, with a focus on pop culture and feminism. As a science fiction writer and blogger Hurley has come across her fair share of misogyny, on and off line. And it's made her angry. (Justifiably - when I looked at Twitter this morning I came across the #immodestwomen hashtag, which was started after a man on Twitter told a woman he didn't know that she shouldn't use her academic title of Dr in her profile, because it wasn't modest. I really have no understanding of what would make someone even do that). More importantly, she recognises that the taboo on women expressing anger is yet another attempt to control what women say, and so she allows her anger to come out.

Reading this was an interesting experience for me. Last year I read Roxane Gay's Bad Feminist and was blown away by her careful attempts at working towards a position she believed in, rather than one which was easy and simplistic - on some very complex issues like representation and privilege. The essays in this book are a lot more one-dimensional. But sometimes it's good to be reminded to be angry.

What are we risking by speaking up? Everything, certainly. But the far riskier business is not speaking up at all. The riskier future is the one where we all fear a madman incensed by something he read online plowing a car into our house more than we fear being hit by a random bus on the street. I am sane enough to note that the odds of the latter are still greater than the odds of the former. The truth is that much of the hate directed at us is about fear of us. As both an essayist and a science fiction and fantasy novelist, I write about and for the future. I talk about the past to remind us that what we believe has always been true—that men and women are somehow static categories, or that men in power has always been the default, or that same-sex love affairs were always taboo—has not always been thus. Who we are, how we define ourselves, how we structure our societies has been vastly mutable over time. I talk about that because if we assume the world has always been one way, then change is not only scarier (“But what will happen if we change?!”), but appears to be impossible (“It’s never been done!”). The truth is change happens all the time.

84wandering_star
Bearbeitet: Jun. 15, 2018, 9:40pm

43. Himself by Jess Kidd

1976. A handsome young man arrives in a village. He has in his pocket a photograph of a young woman and a baby, with a message written on the back:

"Your name is Francis Sweeney. Your mammy was Orla Sweeney. You are from Mulderrig, Co. Mayo. This is a picture of yourself and her. For your information she was the curse of the town, so they took her from you. They all lie, so watch yourself, and know that your mammy loved you."

The photograph had been given to him when he got old enough to leave the orphanage.

Everyone in the village remembers his mother, and some are suspicious of the story that she upped and ran off to Dublin - while others have a strong interest in that story being believed. So his arrival, and the questions he asks, send ripples running through the village almost immediately.

Words are capable of flying. They dart through windows, over fences, between bar stools and across courtyards. They travel rapidly from mouth to ear, from ear to mouth. And as they go, they pick up speed and weight and substance and gravity. Until they land with a scud, take seed and grow as fast as the unruliest of beanstalks.

All this is told in a lightly magical realist style (the young man can see and talk to the dead). In its tone, and the way it depicted a small village and its people, it sometimes reminded me of Under Milk Wood.

85wandering_star
Jun. 15, 2018, 9:50pm

44. Death and the Seaside by Alison Moore

Like Himself, this was a selection from my Ninja Book Club subscription. It's an unsettling little story about an unsuccessful writer, living in a rented room, trying to write a story about a woman about her age, living in a rented room, to whom strange things start to happen. Bonnie (the writer) has a landlady who is altogether too interested in the progress of the story, and soon the events which happen to Susan (the character) and to Bonnie start to echo each other. And then Sylvia (the landlady) persuades Bonnie to have a holiday at the seaside - the same setting as the story.

Sylvia herself did not look entirely well, though Bonnie. She looked rather wild-eyed. He complexion was shiny and her hair was quite wild. She still had on what might have been the same blue suit, and it looked a little dishevelled. Perhaps this sea air was not doing either of them any good.

'You're getting mixed up with what happens in your Seatown story,' said Sylvia. 'It's not surprising, of course. Here you are, in Susan's room, in Susan's bed, almost in Susan's skin. Now you can find your ending. You just have to think: what is she going to do?'

'I don't know,' said Bonnie.

'Well, as long as you're in the right frame of mind, in your character's mindset, it will come. You're Susan - what happens next?'

Bonnie finished her ice cream and Sylvia took the bowl away, and Bonnie heard her lock the door.

86wandering_star
Jun. 15, 2018, 10:25pm

45. The Caliph's House by Tahir Shah

Shah, a British writer, uproots his family from cold and rainy London and moves to Casablanca, into a house that is now ramshackle but has seen better days. Like other doing-up-a-house-abroad books, there are comedy locals and incompetent workmen, but I didn't mind these tropes too much because Shah seems to have fundamental sympathy towards his Moroccan neighbours and staff, and in the end the book is a story of how he and his family come to feel like they belong in the community around them.

Kamal told me that to get an engine on the cheap we would have to tell the vultures. Only the vultures, he said darkly, knew where to look. 'Tell them what you want and they'll get it,' he said. 'How do they do that?' 'They have their methods. If you have the cash to pay, they'll run a car off the road and track what's left to a scrap-yard.' 'That sounds illegal to me,' I said. 'In any case I don't have much cash.' Kamal clicked his tongue. 'Don't worry,' he said, 'I know a vulture with a conscience.'

(Each chapter is headed with a Moroccan proverb, my favourite being: 'Every beetle is a gazelle in the eye of its mother'.)

87wandering_star
Jun. 15, 2018, 10:46pm

46. Gain by Richard Powers

Richard Powers writes fiction which is challenging and full of ideas. I've loved the two previous Powers books I have read - The Time of Our Singing, in which the ideas are about race, and Orfeo in which they are about domestic terrorism (these are extremely broad-brush descriptions, by the way, which don't in any way convey the complexities of the texts).

Gain is about the power of big business, another important factor shaping the world we live in, and one which should allow for some equally interesting thinking. Powers looks at this through two alternating stories - the story of a woman who has developed ovarian cancer; and the story of the corporation which *is* the economy of the town she lives in, from its first origins as a small trading company. You already know how the two stories are linked.

I made it all the way through the book because I'd had such a good experience with the other two - but it was a real struggle. Both stories are told in such detail that any movement or development emerges at a tortoise's pace. And the historical part suffers terribly from portentious language - at one point conditions on a long sea voyage are described with the sentence: "He lived smothered in flesh, ten dozen men who laved by lunar calendar, if that often."

Ten dozen men who laved by lunar calendar.

What was the editor thinking??

Almost worse, though, is the fact that there didn't really seem to be any new or interesting ideas in this book. I really think the person who writes most interestingly about new technologies and their impact is Ted Chiang, who manages to say new and interesting things in the shape of a short story. (Read The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling.) By contrast Gain is lengthy, ponderous and unoriginal - seems to me the worst of all worlds.

However, plenty of people seem to have enjoyed this book, including the legendary book reviewer Michiko Kakutani, who apparently described it as ‘the most accessible and straightforward of Power’s novels thus far’.

88wandering_star
Jun. 15, 2018, 10:58pm

47. Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey

Hah - now this was the opposite. A gigantic, gripping epic which somehow managed to get told in 250 pages. Now I'm not saying it's a novel of ideas. But it was an extremely enjoyable read.

The story? On the planet of Pern, every couple of hundred years, there is an attack of spores ('the Threads') which come dropping from the sky, and can lay waste to the most fertile fields. The only thing which can combat them is dragonfire - and so the people of the plains give a tithe to support the dragonmen in their hilltop castles. But now it's been 400 years since the last Thread attack. The men of the plains are increasingly resentful of the tithe. There is only one community of dragonmen left and the last Weyrwoman (keeper of the dragon queen) was lazy and slack, so the number of dragons is also dwindling. The dragonmen set out to seek a new Weyrwoman. Will their search be successful? Will they be able to maintain their ability to protect Pern?

She rested her bucket and propped her broom and shovel as she wrestled with the heavy bronze door that gave into the new stables. They had been built outside the cliff of Ruatha by Fax's first Warder, a subtler man than all eight of his successors. He had achieved more than all the others, and Lessa had honestly regretted the necessity of his death. But he would have made her revenge impossible. He would have found her out before she had learned how to camouflage herself and her little interferences. What had his name been? She could not recall. Well, she regretted his death.

89avaland
Jun. 22, 2018, 11:09am

>83 wandering_star: I don't know how old you are, but oftentimes I feel as if I have been angry for decades....

90wandering_star
Jun. 24, 2018, 9:21pm

I think too often I am only angry in retrospect - when I think back to something and realise how outrageous it was. I am definitely angrier now than I used to be.

91wandering_star
Jun. 25, 2018, 5:12am

I was thinking about gendered approaches to emotion recently, when I watched the remarkable film "The Work", a documentary about a four-day intensive therapy session which takes place annually inside Folsom Prison, for both convicts and men who come in from outside the prison to participate.

One of the earliest sessions starts with the men being asked to tell stories of betrayal. At first I thought this was odd - how would thinking about something within a framing of 'betrayal' help people come to terms with it?

As they told their stories I realised they were all stories about being hurt - but I don't think they would have come up with the stories if you'd asked them in those words. Anger was a much more acceptable (and masculine) emotion for them than sadness or hurt - as damaging as that can be (one of the convicts said he wanted to find a way to be which didn't involve violence).

92wandering_star
Jun. 25, 2018, 6:01am

48. Dunbar by Edward St. Aubyn

This is the second retelling of King Lear I've read in the last year, after Preti Taneja's We That Are Young. And then of course there's Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres.

The most challenging element of such a retelling must be what to do with the two elder daughters. Are they simply evil? But that doesn't really fit with conventions of modern storytelling. Are they loving daughters pushed beyond the boundaries of what they can bear? That's all very well but then how do you explain their later violent excesses?

I think if I was writing one I would have them taught ruthlessness at their father's knee - which is kind of the approach that St Aubyn takes here, although it is at best just sketched out. Because the focus of this novel is uncompromisingly Lear - or 'Henry Dunbar', a Rupert Murdoch-esque media mogul.

The story here focuses on the third to fifth acts of the play, starting with Lear/Dunbar going out into the storm - instead of a Fool, he is accompanied by a wisecracking alcoholic TV comedian, who helps him break out of the nursing home where his elder daughters have put him, with orders to the staff to keep him docile with medication, while they carry out their plan to take over his companies.

Dunbar is a compelling and complex individual - unfortunately, too many of the other characters are just outlines.

On top of feeling generally disoriented all the time, like someone who has forgotten how to tie his shoelaces or to name the familiar objects around him, he was also being subjected to spasms of much deeper perplexity. Right now, he felt a root confusion, as if he had just witness something impossible, a reversal of the laws of nature, like a stone being thrown into the air, which instead of falling downwards, continues to accelerate into the sky.

93wandering_star
Jun. 25, 2018, 8:49pm

49. The Moor by Laurie R King

In this installment of the Mary Russell & Sherlock Holmes series, the pair are in Dartmoor - the site of the long-ago Hound of the Baskervilles case - trying to work out what's behind some very strange goings-on.

Not the place to start if you're new to the series - there's not much about the relationship between the two in this one - but an enjoyable quick read, heavy on the atmospheric, brooding setting of the moor.

The interior consists of rolling upland. It has been likened to a sea after a storm suddenly arrested and turned to stone; but a still better resemblance, if not so romantic, is that of a dust-sheet thrown over the dining-room chairs. – A BOOK OF DARTMOOR

94wandering_star
Bearbeitet: Jun. 25, 2018, 8:55pm

50. I Murdered My Library by Linda Grant (kindle single)

Linda Grant is moving to a smaller house and needs to get rid of some of her books. And she had plenty:

The books in alphabetical rows were overgrown by piles of new books, doubled in front. Books multiplied, books swarmed, books, I sometimes dreamt, seemed to reproduce themselves – they were a papery population explosion. When they had exhausted the shelves, they started to take over the stairs; I had to vacuum round them. You cannot have a taste for minimalist décor if you seriously read books.

The experience of doing so gave rise to this extended musing on books and what they mean - as physical objects, as markers of different time periods in your life - and how it feels to switch to ebooks. Of course, there is also plenty about how difficult it is to do a cull.

The methodology with which I embarked on my cull was very high-minded. I would preserve those books of literary merit, the books I had not yet read but wanted to, and the books given as gifts with an inscription on the flyleaf. Judging literary merit at the top of library steps is a beautiful and contemplative activity. I see Catherine Deneuve, half-lit with the illumination from a Parisian window on a Rive Gauche boulevard below cloudy pearly autumnal skies, a few streets from Shakespeare & Co. She picks a book out from the shelf, examines the spine. Ah, Matthieu! The much-older lover, a grizzled intellectual with whom she spent a summer in Cadaques when she was 20. Fade and dissolve to Charlotte Gainsbourg in 1967, in the kitchen cutting tomatoes, while out on the terrace Daniel Auteuil is typing his masterpiece, which will win the Prix Goncourt and later be filmed by Truffaut. I sneezed. The shelves were filthy.

I suspect that anyone who owns a lot of books (hello LT-ers) would enjoy reading this. Also, Grant seems to have the ideal local bookshop:

When I read a long review by Margaret Drabble in the Guardian of the Collected Stories of the murdered Soviet writer Isaac Babel, I put down the paper, walked to the shop and asked if they had a copy of this £25 hardback. ‘Mary ordered two,’ Stephen said. ‘She said, Linda Grant will buy one and someone else will buy the other.’ And he took ‘my’ copy from behind the counter and handed it to me.

95avaland
Jun. 30, 2018, 8:06am

>94 wandering_star: That does sound very, very tempting.

96wandering_star
Jul. 4, 2018, 10:13am

51. The Sewing Machine by Natalie Fergie

This book is published by Unbound, a crowdsourcing website for books - the writers post a synopsis and short extract, and people put forward the funding. I can see the attraction of the synopsis - three people in different time periods, whose stories are linked by a sewing machine - the woman who made it, the woman who first bought it, and a young man who inherits it, rusty and disused, from his grandfather. The author's bio says she is a textile enthusiast and has a collection of sewing machines, including one which was the inspiration for this story.

Unfortunately, the execution is rather plodding, with no apparent thought given to pacing, or how to weave the stories together in a way which keeps the interest going.

97wandering_star
Bearbeitet: Jul. 4, 2018, 10:33am

52. The Word Tree by Teolinda Gersao

I'm sorry to see that this lovely book has only 14 copies on LT. In three very different sections, it tells the story of a young woman in Mozambique. In Part One we see her as a young child. The style of this section is lush, colourful, with a tinge of magical realism. The girl is very close to her father, who loves life in Mozambique - much less close to her mother, who spends most of her time policing young Gita's life to make sure she doesn't pick up too many habits from the 'natives'. Given that, Part Two is very unexpected - we are suddenly with the mother's story, and how she came to emigrate from Portugal to Mozambique - and so we come to understand the roots of her bitterness and resentment. In Part Three, we are back with Gita, now a young woman, and forced to make a difficult decision about where she belongs.

We will walk down the streets, which we know by heart. In a way, they are inside us, like lines engraved on the palms of our hands. Some are parallel, perpendicular, geometric, while others follow their own course, like the paths carved out by wind or water. The city is a living, breathing body, mine, yours, other people’s, the world’s; it’s an endless intersecting of bodies, caught in the uncountable moments of time, repeated over and over like the waves of the sea.

98wandering_star
Jul. 4, 2018, 11:21am

53. No Time Like The Past by Jodi Taylor

The fifth book in the Chronicles of St Mary's series, which are best described as a(n even) more rollicking version of Connie Willis' books - time travel has been invented and is used by historians to study the past. By now they are pretty formulaic - you know what you're getting - which is sometimes exactly what you want!

‘You’re a felon?’ It takes talent to hiss when there isn’t a single ‘s’ in the sentence. ‘Well, yes. Aren’t you?’

99NanaCC
Jul. 4, 2018, 1:55pm

>97 wandering_star: Nice review of The Word Tree. You’ve piqued my interest.

100wandering_star
Jul. 4, 2018, 8:39pm

>99 NanaCC: do follow up, it's a nice read (and very short!)

101wandering_star
Jul. 7, 2018, 8:51pm

54. Whispers Underground by Ben Aaronovitch

The third book in the Rivers of London series of urban fantasy/crime novels. In this one, a young man is stabbed to death in an underground train tunnel. Not so unusual, except that there seems to be no trace of how he got into the tunnel; and the murder weapon is an antique potsherd, which - once our hero Peter Grant gets a look at it - turns out to be heavy with vestigium (ie traces of magic). The victim is also the son of a US senator, bringing transatlantic police co-operation (or not) into the mix.

The story was fun but I really like these books because of their portrayal of modern, multicultural, (if magical), London. It was nice to have the London Underground as the focal point of this one - both the transport underground and the magical one.

102kidzdoc
Jul. 20, 2018, 10:01am

>97 wandering_star: There is at least one more copy of The Word Tree on LT. I read Teolinda Gersão's superb novel City of Ulysses when I was in Lisbon last month, as the book is set in the Portuguese capital, and I was already planning to buy The Word Tree when I read your review. Your comments made me buy it right away, and I'll probably read it next month.

Unfortunately those two books are apparently the only ones by Gersão that have been translated into English so far, even though she is a highly acclaimed author in Portugal. When deebee1 and I met in Lisbon last month and visited the Livraria Bertrand do Chiado she pointed out her other books to me, along with those of several other notable Portuguese authors whose works haven't been translated into English. She said that they are more likely to be translated into French and Spanish, and that works by some Portuguese authors, such as Gonçalo M. Tavares, don't translate well into English. If my plans come to pass I'll start reading at least some of these books in Portuguese in the not too distant future.

103wandering_star
Jul. 26, 2018, 9:32pm

>102 kidzdoc: Glad to hear it! Maybe one day you could also translate some of those books....

55. The Signal and the Noise: the art and science of prediction by Nate Silver

Nate Silver is famous for correctly predicting the outcome of the 2012 US Presidential elections in every state. This book though is not about how he did that, so much as why some things are more predictable than others, and how to make a good prediction. I found much of it absolutely gripping, and took lots and lots of notes as I was reading it. (I say 'much of it' because the chapters about prediction in specific fields were a bit easier to skim over, particularly relating to sports).

Silver points out that many expert predictions are unreliable. One piece of research found that when experts in a particular field said something had 'no chance' of happening, it tended to happen around 15% of the time, and around a quarter of 'absolutely sure things' don't take place. And the consequences of this? Silver quotes Hitchhiker: "The major difference between a thing that might go wrong and a thing that cannot possibly go wrong is that when a thing that cannot possible go wrong goes wrong it usually turns out to be impossible to get at or repair".

The thing which resonated with me most strongly was the difference between sounding confident and being right. I often worry that - in a world where everyone seems to have an incredibly definite and strongly-held opinion - I am too wishy-washy and prone to see both sides of the argument. This book argues that a clear, passionate argument will get you on TV - but it means you're less likely to be right. (Aside: I have heard quite a few people saying that they were asked to appear in the media to represent a particular point of view - but when they told the producers they saw that both 'sides' of the argument had merit, they were disinvited. And look at the state of the world as a result.)

So, for example, Silver says that no-one correctly predicted the reasons for the collapse of the Soviet Union, because the combination of causes came from both 'sides' of the argument - conservative commentators spotted the economic weakness of the regime, which liberals didn't - but they also underestimated the impact of 'glastnost' because they assumed that it was just regime posturing.

The title of the book is a reference to the difference between meaningful information (the signal) and meaningless (noise). Silver points out that in a world of ever-increasing data, the number of meaningful relationships has hardly changed, so we are being swamped with noise.

How to spot a prediction which is likely to be wrong? It will:
- focus on the signals which tell a story about the world as we (or the speaker) would like it to be
- make crude approximations and assumptions
- ignore the risks which are hardest to measure
- ignore uncertainties, even when they are an irreducible part of the problem being considered.

104wandering_star
Jul. 26, 2018, 9:40pm

56. Anarchy and Old Dogs by Colin Cotterill

Book four of the detective novels featuring Dr Siri Paiboun, official coroner of 1970s Laos. It's a series I enjoy, although looking at LT the last time I read one was in 2014. So my memory of the others may be a little faulty, but it seems to me this is a good one - the central mystery is pretty coherent and brings in some of the interesting political context (a coup against the Pathet Lao regime is being plotted from a refugee camp in Thailand).

There was a blissful silence, which in Laos can incorporate a lot of noise. There's the humming and buzzing of insects and the distant howling of dogs. Somewhere a wind chime is disturbed by a lizard. House timbers stretch and grown. Water drips from a leaky tap into the huge stone temple pot. But, as any Lao would tell you, these are just musical accompaniments to make silence more interesting.

105wandering_star
Jul. 26, 2018, 10:04pm

57. Pure by Andrew Miller

Paris, a few years before the start of the French Revolution. A young engineer is summoned to Versailles and given the task of cleaning up the overcrowded, stinking cemetary of Les Innocents. The taboo nature of this work would daunt many a person, and Baratte ends up bringing in a team of miners from his Normandy home to help with the task (their arrival a reminder perhaps that even in the clean fresh country air there are filthy, difficult tasks which need to be done).

Although the cemetary is so vast that a foul miasma overhangs the whole neighbourhood, not everyone supports the work he's doing - whether the cemetary keeper and his young family who might be out of a living, to the deranged priest of the neighbouring, deserted church. These gothic elements are counterposed by Baratte's self-consciously modern and rational friends and partners in the cemetary clearance. Baratte himself is torn between the two. He wants to be a modern, rational man. He lets himself get sold an expensive, impractical silk suit because it is the latest fashion. Before he goes to sleep he repeats an assertion of rationalism, rather than a prayer. And yet the impact of his work, and the ties of his traditional upbringing, mean that he feels uneasy in all this.

A clever and interesting read, from the foreshadowings of the revolution to come - the popularity of The Marriage of Figaro to anti-regime graffiti and political arguments between Baratte and his friends - and the way that this message is undercut by the fact that almost the whole story is an allegory about modernity and rationalism, and how the old traditions still have a strong hold.

For the men in the pit, and the men above charged with the task of opening the coffins, there is at first a palpable tension, all of them seemingly braced for some horror, something abruptly unhidden that might, from its box, regard them. Along with the brandy bottle, the tobacco jar is circulated. It is, mercifully, enough to keep them at it. And by the end of the day, as the last coffin is lifted by firelight, it all seems queerly bearable, as if work, whatever its particulars, was in the end just work. Something you bent to for probable reward. Something you did because human restlessness must be harnessed to some purpose if it is not to feed on itself.

106wandering_star
Aug. 1, 2018, 12:56pm

Need to post some short reviews to catch up with myself!

58. Sleeping Beauties by Mavis Cheek

A twisted feminist/chick-lit mash-up in which an older woman who runs a beauty salon, and genuinely believes both in its pampering powers and a woman's duty to look beautiful, hands over temporarily to a young assistant - who has worryingly no-nonsense tendencies in her attitude to the relationship between the sexes, and an enthusiastically slapdash approach to the job of beautification. Feminist Awakenings are had, and the three customers - each of whom came to the beauty parlour with a particular man/goal in mind - get more than they bargained for.

Overall felt quite dated, despite a few funny moments.

Caroline suppresses the memory of a postcard she recently sent to a friend which defined Post-Feminism as Keep Your Bra and Burn Your Brain. All very well, all very well - but the adage of Love and War also sprang to mind.
You want to wipe out a rival?
I can do that.
Make an appointment for a makeover and you can tell me your dreams.

107wandering_star
Aug. 1, 2018, 1:08pm

59. The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes

A wonderful look at art under tyranny, through a novella about Shostakovich. There are three parts, each one of which starts with a line about how Shostakovich believed that he was living through the worst possible time. In Part One, one of Shostakovich's works has been denounced, and he expects to be arrested and sent to the gulag - so much so that he spends every night with his suitcase packed, waiting on the landing outside his flat, so that when they come to take him away his wife won't be distressed. In Part Two, Shostakovich’s music has official support once again, but he is packed off to represent the USSR on an official trip to the US, where he is tricked/coerced into being a mouthpiece for the party, and most distressingly for him, to denounce Stravinsky. In Part Three, he is given a senior official position but forced - finally - to join the Party.

He felt, suddenly, as if all the breath had been taken out of his body. How, why had he not seen this coming? All through the years of terror, he had been able to say that at least he had never tried to make things easier for himself by becoming a Party member. And now, finally, after the great fear was over, they had come for his soul.

A terrific description of the impact that living under tyranny has on a person - the choices you are forced to make.

108wandering_star
Aug. 1, 2018, 1:15pm

60. Rain Dogs by Adrian McKinty

Northern Ireland, 1980s. A team of Finnish businessmen are on a visit to look at a potential investment - which would have a big impact on local jobs. But when a young journalist who'd been accompanying the delegation is found dead, in an apparent suicide, Detective Duffy starts to wonder whether business is that all they're there for.

‘Hubris, Duffy. Mark my words.’
‘You’re going to have to explain yourself better, Kenny. Greek mythology has always been my Achilles elbow.’
Fury knitting his brows in a way that you hoped would lead to a stroke, but knew it wouldn’t.


The second Sean Duffy book I've read, and like the first - a perfectly acceptable mystery, in an interesting setting.

109wandering_star
Aug. 1, 2018, 1:23pm

61. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

This book starts with a woman reminiscing about her time at what seems to have been a very posh boarding school. There are some odd things about the school - and about one-third of the way in, Ishiguro starts to reveal what they are.

I thought I knew what this book was about, because I'd heard enough about it (and the film that it was made into) to have an idea of what the big reveal would be. But actually the book is about so much more than that. In some ways it's a coming-of-age story. It's also the story of the narrator, who is as hesitant and shy as the butler in Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day. And on top of all this, when the final details of the twist are revealed to us at the end - the last remaining mystery about these children's school - it is absolutely devastating.

Ruth had been right: Madame was afraid of us. But she was afraid of us in the same way someone might be afraid of spiders. We hadn't been ready for that. It had never occurred to us to wonder how we would feel, being seen like that, being the spiders.

110wandering_star
Aug. 1, 2018, 1:33pm

62. Slow River by Nicola Griffith

Science fiction. Lore is the heiress to a great corporate fortune - and yet when she is kidnapped, the family fail to stump up a ransom. Because of this, when Lore escapes, she doesn't return to her home but goes to the city, where she is taken in and patched up by Spanner, a con artist. Eventually Lore becomes tired of that life and tries to live more normally, taking a junior job in a factory related to her family's conglomerate. But when things go wrong there, her family find out where she is, and she also finds out the reason why she was not ransomed.

A nice choppy timeline so I enjoyed piecing the story together, and themes of morality, choice and strength - but perhaps once the story was pieced together it turned out to be less interesting than I was expecting.

Worth noting that this was first published in 1995, and did a good job of predicting some of today's technology, from pervasive surveillance to the popularity of handheld devices.

Why now, after all these years of hoarding them, keeping them safe? Spanner said nothing, but Lore thought she knew: because now that Spanner had started to talk about them - the memories, the pictures - they were a point of vulnerability for her. Get rid of the pictures, get rid of the memories. No more vulnerability. No more weak points. The armor would be smooth again.

111wandering_star
Aug. 1, 2018, 1:41pm

63. River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey

A gaggle of misfit outlaws come together to make money and seek revenge - basically a Wild West story set in an alternate USA where hippos are the dominant working animal (for riding and ranching).

Quite fun in its pastiche of Western tropes, but pretty thin - this felt to me like the origin story of the gang of outlaws, that you publish to keep your fans happy in between writing the full novels.

Houndstooth propped his feet on a chair as he watched Nadine work the room. She was in her element: sliding full mugs of beer down the gleaming bar, promising to arm wrestle drunk patrons, letting customers buy her shots of whiskey to share with them (she always poured herself iced tea and pocketed the cash). He loved to see her efficiency. He’d told her many times that she would make an excellent hopper, but she always said she preferred to herd malodorous beasts that paid in cash.

112wandering_star
Aug. 1, 2018, 1:52pm

64. Life Class by Pat Barker

The "life class" of the title has a double meaning - most obviously, it refers to the art class where the protagonists of this novel first meet. But it also refers to their experiences of World War One, which breaks out a few months later. Paul joins the Belgian Red Cross and nurses wounded soldiers - while Elinor tries to ignore the war as much as possible, and focus on her art.

The best bit of this book were the scenes where Paul is at the hospital, and the reader sees how much he has numbed himself to the scenes of suffering around him, in the intolerant way he responds to a new member of staff.

Eventually Paul nodded off, then woke, and spent the next hour wandering along the edge of sleep, afraid of plunging in, in case the freshening-up process that Lewis had started should extend to the deeper layers of his mind and reawaken the nightmares.

113wandering_star
Bearbeitet: Aug. 1, 2018, 2:00pm

65. Even Dogs In The Wild by Ian Rankin

Rebus has finally retired. But he is brought back into the police team because of what appears to be a linked series of murders and one attempted murder, whose target is Rebus' old nemesis, now-retired Edinburgh crime boss 'Big Ger' Cafferty.

Pretty good. I enjoyed the mystery elements of the story, but also the way the three detectives - Rebus, Fox, and Siobhan Clarke - continue to develop - in particular the way that Malcolm Fox starts to gain confidence that he can be a 'real' policeman after his period of time in internal investigation, and the grudging respect that the two men had somehow developed for each other.

For that reason though, probably not the place to start with Rankin - the long backstory provides a lot of depth.

Rebus shook his head. ‘That doesn’t work for me.’ ‘I don’t work for you either, so do me the courtesy of answering just one question – are you here to uncover the truth, or to ensure it stays hidden?’

PS - I hope it's not a plot spoiler to note that this book and Rain Dogs have a very similar crime/conspiracy at the heart of their stories, a crime which perhaps would not have been believable a few years ago.

114wandering_star
Aug. 1, 2018, 2:13pm

66. Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller

A young woman returns to her West Country home because her father has had a bad fall - and is behaving erratically, in particular believing that he has seen the wife who disappeared over a decade previously. This story is interwoven with a series of letters written by his wife, in the weeks before she disappeared - telling the story of their relationship from start to finish. It's not completely clear whether Gil ever read her letters - she wrote them while he was away from home, and stashed them inside books from his vast collection. And there is a real ambiguity in Ingrid's fate - the closing pages of the book contain one big hint that she drowned herself, and another big hint that she disappeared to start a new life elsewhere.

There are some obvious flaws in this book - some very contrived events, and characters who are not particularly believable. But generally I felt it stayed on the right side of whimsical. And there were a number of wonderful touches - most poignantly, a love letter that Gil wrote to Ingrid at the very start of their relationship, which perhaps contains some clues as to what happened to her. And as I love the sea, and swimming in the sea, myself, I enjoyed the seaside location and watery focus of the story.

Like always, the coldness of the water shocked her, but within two strokes or three, the rest of the world was forgotten and she was transformed from a person who breathed air to a thing of the sea, an underwater creature where everything was the smooth action of bone, muscle and moving forward. Flora opened her eyes. The water was the colour of mint tea, and sometimes if she listened hard enough her mother’s voice sounded amongst the swish of the weed and the tumble of the sand, telling her to straighten her legs, to keep her lead hand in motion, to swim against the current so that it was always easy to return, even when tired.

115wandering_star
Aug. 1, 2018, 2:18pm

67. Octopus by Michael Gallagher

Subtitled "Octavius Guy and the Case of the Throttled Tragedienne", this was an enjoyable romp of a historical crime novel set in the underworld of Victorian London, with a teenage crime lord as our principle detective. I galloped through it. To be honest, I suspect if I'd read it more slowly and carefully, I would have found a few holes in the story - but it was a fun read.

116wandering_star
Aug. 1, 2018, 2:35pm

68. I Take You by Eliza Kennedy

It's a week before Lily's wedding. She's having her hen party in New York, the day before heading home to Florida to finish off the wedding preparations. She's flirting with a hot guy in the bar, when she gets a phone call from her boss - she needs to get to the office now. When she gets to the office her boss tells her she needs to spend some of her week in Florida doing deposition prep for a key witness in a big corporate fraud case (Lily's law firm is defending the corporation). After that conversation they hop onto the sofa for a quick shag, clearly not for the first time. Perhaps it's not surprising that when Lily gets to Florida, her mum and stepmothers all try and convince her that she's not ready to get married yet.

This book was such a strange mix. About 80% of it was a sparky, feminist, sex-positive romp - bubblegum, but enjoyably so. Lily is tremendously likeable and it's great to have a heroine who is unembarrassed about her physical desires and knows how to get what she wants. So WHY OH WHY OH WHY did the author have to completely undermine this with a couple of terrible choices - first of all, it turns out that Lily has a Terrible Tragedy in her past which she has never come to terms with - could this be the reason why she Has To Have Sex With All The Men? And the ending of the story dissolves weakly into a sugary traditional romance. So frustrating. If only the author had had the courage not to do these two things, this could have been a great beach read.

I snuggle into my seat. I love listening to Will talk about his intellectual interests. He’s so adorably precise and methodical. Long, complicated sentences roll right out of him. It’s kind of like being engaged to an audiobook.

117wandering_star
Aug. 1, 2018, 2:44pm

69. The Night in Question by Laurie Graham

Narrated by a music-hall performer, it's some time into the book before the reader realises that this is the story of the Ripper murders - told from the perspective of a woman who knew one of the murdered women. At first I thought it was a clever idea to write a story about what it was like to be living in East London at that time - the impact of everyone being afraid that a terrible killer was on the loose. But this is even more than that - it's a Jack the Ripper story which doesn't focus on Jack, but on his victims, and makes them into real people, women whose lives were more complicated than could be summed up as a prostitute who was brutally murdered. The person of the Ripper almost fades into the background - as much as is possible in a book that revolves around his crimes. Really refreshing, given that there his such a tendency in Ripper stories to glamorise the killer and forget about his victims.

The Reverend Dunscombe. Man that is born of woman hath but a short time to live and is full of misery. Well that didn’t sound right. Kate was forty-six, not bad for someone who lived on tea and rum, and I must say I never knew a more cheerful person in adversity.

118rachbxl
Aug. 5, 2018, 3:51am

>97 wandering_star: I’m well behind with your thread, but I’m glad you liked The Word Tree. I read it to review in Belletrista when the translation had just come out (but Belletrista folded, so I never actually wrote the review). A really lovely book, I thought.

119wandering_star
Sept. 11, 2018, 8:15pm

70. How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran

I'm ashamed to say that for a long time, opinionated women made me very uncomfortable. Much more recently I have realised that this was an internalisation of the social norm that women should be quiet, demure, and never ever express a strong opinion or risk causing offence. But it took me a long time not to have an instinctive shrinking away when I think of women like Caitlin Moran, known for no-nonsense telling it like it is. Well, I'm so glad I'm over that - for a whole lot of reasons, but right now because this is such a brilliant book. The framework (and reason for the title) is that this is a memoir of Moran's formative years, growing up in Wolverhampton, moving to London to write for Melody Maker, and eventually getting married and having daughters of her own. But really it is a series of essays about the various kinds of bullshit that women have to put up with, written by someone who's able to explain exactly why it's bullshit, and to do so in a funny and memorable way.

Women who, in a sexist world, pander to sexism to make their fortune are Vichy France with tits. Are you 32GG, waxed to within an inch of your life and faking orgasms? Then you're doing business with a decadent and corrupt regime. Calling that a feminist icon is like giving an arms dealer the Nobel Peace Prize.

120wandering_star
Bearbeitet: Mai 24, 2020, 9:30pm

71. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Eleanor Oliphant is an admin assistant in an office. She does her work, sticks to her routine, and on Friday night buys two bottles of vodka on the way home so that she can get through the weekend. She keeps herself to herself and is completely fine about it. But then one day she and a colleague help an elderly gentleman who has fallen in the street, and gradually she is forced to open up her world and start to interact more with other people.

At first this book rests a lot on the humour of embarrassment, as we witness Eleanor's complete lack of understanding of the people around her. (At one point Eleanor muses that "Animals, birds and insects can provide such useful insights. If I'm ever unsure as to the correct course of action, I'll think 'What would a ferret do?' or, 'How would a salamander respond to this situation?' Invariably, I find the right answer.") But as the story continues it's clear that there is something pretty serious underlying Eleanor's disconnection from the world, and the humour becomes essential to helping the reader cope with what on its own is a desperately sad story.

The title makes this book sound fluffy, and I wouldn't have picked it up but for some excellent LT reviews. It wasn't too difficult to work out some of the elements of the big reveal, and the story doesn't completely hang together, but it's a good concept, and an enjoyable read.

My phone doesn’t ring often - it makes me jump when it does - and it’s usually people asking if I’ve been mis-sold Payment Protection Insurance. I whisper I know where you live to them, and hang up the phone very, very gently. No one’s been in my flat this year apart from service professionals; I’ve not voluntarily invited another human being across the threshold, except to read the meter. You’d think that would be impossible, wouldn’t you? It’s true, though. I do exist, don’t I? It often feels as if I’m not here, that I’m a figment of my own imagination. There are days when I feel so lightly connected to the earth that the threads that tether me to the planet are gossamer thin, spun sugar.

121wandering_star
Sept. 13, 2018, 8:28pm

72. I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life by Ed Yong

A fascinating book about our microbiomes and the effect they have on us. Actually, not just (or even mainly) about human microbiomes - there are innumerable animals which have evolved to make use of microbes, such as a squid which nurtures bioluminescent microbes on its skin to help it camouflage itself (emitting enough light so that its prey, on the seabed, see no shadow).

Really interesting, and easy to read too. (An additional benefit is that it recommended the Microbia museum in Amsterdam, on a morning when I happened to be reading it in Amsterdam, so we went to the museum, which was very nicely set up and an interesting visit).

A well-functioning gut needs a big surface area for absorbing nutrients, which is why its walls are densely lined with long, finger-like pillars. It needs to constantly regenerate the cells at its surface, which get sloughed off by the passing tide of food. It needs a rich network of underlying blood vessels to carry nutrients to and fro. And it needs to be sealed – its cells must stick tightly to each other to prevent foreign molecules (and microbes) from leaking into those blood vessels. All of these essential properties are compromised without microbes. If zebrafish or mice grow up in the absence of bacteria their guts don’t develop fully, their pillars are shorter, their walls leakier, their blood vessels look more like sparse country lanes than a dense urban grid, and their cycle of regeneration pedals in a lower gear. Many of these glitches can be rectified simply by giving the animals a normal complement of microbes or even isolated microbial molecules.

122wandering_star
Sept. 13, 2018, 8:41pm

73. Binstead's Safari by Rachel Ingalls

In this elliptical novella, a pompous anthropologist takes his wife on a trip to Africa, where he plans to do some research for his book on 'the mythic character' - specifically, a myth about a lion-man which has grown up in a particular reason. He believes that he is a broad-minded and sexually liberated human being, in contrast to his wife, who he thinks of as mousy and uptight. He has had plenty of adventures, and has completely stopped noticing anything about his wife - and so he doesn't observe the changes that come over her when she starts to have an adventure of her own - which means he is completely unable to understand what is going on when their personal lives start to intersect unexpectedly with his research. A nice mix of domestic drama and modern Gothic.

And he had long ago talked himself into condoning his infidelities, even before the question of having children—or not having them—had become such a large, concealed part of their lives. It often seemed to him that by being with another woman he was getting even with Millie for her dreariness.

123wandering_star
Sept. 13, 2018, 8:53pm

74. The Homecoming Party by Carmine Abate

Another novella, this time about life in a southern Italian village among a community of people who are descended from long-ago Albanian immigrants, and speak a language called Arbëresh. (I discovered later that they are descendants of Albanians who fled the Ottomans in the 15th century.)

It's a very poor village, and many men - including the narrator's father - emigrate to France to work, returning home once a year if at all.

Of course, a lot can change within the family in the time a father is away, particularly when there is an attractive teenage daughter in the family - and if we know anything about Albanian traditions, it's that the honour of the girls is hugely important.

But this storyline is just a framework for the real topic of the book, the relationship between the narrator and his father, often absent but larger-than-life when he is at home. I enjoyed reading this, but it hasn't stuck very well in my memory.

But life, bir, waits in ambush for us all, and that’s why it’s good to have escape routes, otherwise sooner or later you’ll find yourself spinning around in circles like a strùmbolo - a top - and you don’t know what you’re looking for anymore, you feel lost, and before you know it a pickaxe swings down on your head and splits you in two: and that’s it, you’re done for.

124wandering_star
Sept. 13, 2018, 8:59pm

75. A Darker Shade of Magic by VE Schwab

Enjoyable urban fantasy. Four Londons exist, connected to each other by obscure portals. Well, they aren't all connected to each other - "Black London", the one furthest from our own nonmagical world, has been closed off from the other worlds because there, magic controls people rather than being controlled, with terrible results. But when Kell (one of the few people who can travel between worlds) discovers a piece of Black London, he knows that he has to make the journey to return it before someone with evil intentions gets hold of it. He can't, however, shake off the person who first brought it to his attention - a young highwaywoman from our (nonmagical) world, who wants out and wants adventure. Cue swashbuckling.

Kell never noticed the faint aromatic scent of Red London clinging to his clothes, but whenever he traveled, someone invariably told him that he smelled like freshly cut flowers. Some said tulips. Others stargazers. Chrysanthemums. Peonies. To the king of England, it was always roses. Kell was glad to know it was a pleasant scent, even if he couldn’t smell it. He could smell Grey London (smoke) and White London (blood), but to him, Red London simply smelled like home.

125wandering_star
Bearbeitet: Sept. 13, 2018, 9:03pm

76. The 24-Hour Wine Expert by Jancis Robinson

A short book of no-nonsense advice for people who would like to know a little bit more about wine and how to enjoy it.

For example:
Much more important than the colour of a wine is its weight in the mouth and the impact it makes on your palate. If you’re eating something reasonably delicate–burrata, fresh mozzarella, goat’s cheese, an omelette, poached white fish or chicken–it makes sense to drink a fairly delicate, light wine with it: a Vermentino, Chablis, Sauvignon Blanc or a rosé or light red such as Pinot Noir, Cinsault or Beaujolais. If, on the other hand, you’re eating pork belly, hamburger, steak tartare or venison, you probably want a wine that’s a bit meaty – a full-blooded wine that really makes an impact on you, such as a rich Grenache/Garnacha, Syrah/ Shiraz or Mourvèdre/Mataro.

Or, from a sidebar headed "Ten common wine myths":
The more expensive the bottle, the better the wine
Best-value bottles retail between £8 and £20. Below £8 there’s usually too little left after fixed costs and taxes to pay for the wine, so poor quality is likely. Above £20 and you risk paying for ego, ‘positioning’ and the vagaries of the fine-wine market.

126Dilara86
Sept. 14, 2018, 3:51pm

I'm enjoying your reviews, especially the one for I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life. I'm reading The Psychobiotic Revolution: Mood, Food, and the New Science of the Gut-Brain Connection at the moment, which is about the microbiota in our gut.

127kidzdoc
Okt. 2, 2018, 8:25am

Nice set of reviews, Margaret. I also enjoyed I Contain Multitudes, and it deserved its place in the Wellcome Book Prize last year.

128wandering_star
Okt. 5, 2018, 4:42am

>126 Dilara86:, >127 kidzdoc: Thank you!

77. Field Service by Robert Edric

Robert Edric has written some excellent books about the aftermath of the Second World War (I particularly recommend The Kingdom of Ashes) but this is the first time I've seen him tackle World War One. The novel is about the process of creating the War Cemeteries in Northern France, preparing the land, delivering the bodies to the right locations and burying (or re-burying) them. The men working on all this are ex-soldiers - or in some cases, people who were conscripted at the end of the war and found themselves with no fighting to do. (I hadn't realised that the creation of the war graves was a little controversial, as those families who were wealthy enough to repatriate the bodies of their dead were prevented from doing so).

The theme of the book is about remembrance - the act of remembering, but also the act of packaging terrible memories and confused events into a clean, simple narrative. Edric illuminates this theme through the men who are managing the process (and their memories and scars from what they went through in the war), characters such a grieving fiancée looking for her lover's remains and a self important priest always ready with a pat sentence, and a subplot involving the covering up of a possible war crime, as burned bodies of soldiers found in a church are buried with their fellows.

"Some of them were delirious with their infections. Some of them, I imagine, might even have believed I was their mother or sweetheart."
"What did you say to them?"
"Whatever they wanted to hear. I imagine there was deceit on both sides."
"Not deceit," Reid said.
"What else would you call it? Consideration? Compassion?"
"Of course it was compassion," Reid insisted.
"And after you've done it ten times, twenty, thirty?"
There was nothing Reid could say to this, and so he remained silent. He wondered how much longer the need for all this story-telling, this tying-up of loose, unravelled ends, this release of long-twisted tensions would last.

129wandering_star
Bearbeitet: Okt. 5, 2018, 5:01am

78. Travel Light by Naomi Mitchison

A charming fairytale based on Norse myth. When Princess Halla's mother dies, the new Queen has her cast out of the castle and left to die. Her loving nurse transforms into a bear in order to rescue her, and for a while, Halla is brought up by bears. But when they realise she will never be able to hibernate, they pass her on to the dragons for a spell, before she returns to the world of humans. But when she was living with the dragons, Halla learnt about the evil that heroes do, and so she is sceptical of those in power and those who would offer to rescue her. Fortunately, during that time she also befriended a Valkyrie and had an encounter with the All-Father, and they help to ensure she is able to stay on her own path.

She got to know the thought and language of the bears. It was a language that did what it wanted to do well enough, so that there were many ways of showing the difference between one taste and another, the taste of crunched mice, the taste of many different berries and roots and the taste of honey either on the front, back, or sides of the tongue. It did the same for smells, ad the forest was always speaking in smells to the bears. It did much for hearing and something for sight, but there was no way, for instance, to think about clouds or the flying of eagles, because the bears did not look up into the sky.

130wandering_star
Okt. 5, 2018, 5:17am

79. An English Murder by Cyril Hare

A country-house murder mystery - an aristocratic family and associated guests are snowed in over Christmas - with one difference (or at least something I hadn't seen before) - rather than ignoring the wider social context in favour of luxurious escapism, the story and crime are set firmly in pre-WWII period - the aristocratic family has fallen on hard times, the victim is an influential young Fascist (whose politics provide some of the possible motives for the murder) and the amateur detective is a Jewish refugee. I enjoyed this a lot but assumed it was a modern pastiche - I was very surprised when I discovered that it was actually published in 1951.

At ten minutes to eight Briggs carried a tray bearing a decanter of sherry and glasses into the drawing room. At eight o’clock precisely he sounded the great Chinese gong in the hall. It was an entirely unnecessary piece of ritual, for he had already seen for himself that all five guests were present; but as a piece of ritual he enjoyed it. The deep brazen notes pulsated through the great, half-empty house, penetrating into dilapidated spare rooms where no guests had been since the First World War, rousing echoes in servants’ quarters where no servant was ever likely to be seen again.

131wandering_star
Okt. 6, 2018, 9:17pm

80. The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

The Lacuna is the story of a young man, Harrison Shepherd, and his life between Mexico and the US. We first meet him when he is a teenager. Bored in the house of his mother's new lover, he befriends one of the house servants who teaches him to cook the lightest empanadas and also to dive in the lacuna, a nearby sinkhole. He also reads, and keeps a diary, and the rest of the book tells the story of his life in his own words, except for another lacuna, another teenage year where something happened which led to Shepherd destroying his diary for that period.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Eventually Shepherd’s mother realises that her new lover will not marry her and she may have options elsewhere, so she takes her son to Mexico City where he falls in with the entourage around Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. He starts off as a cook (those empanadas) and ends up as more of a secretary, on the sidelines of and witness to the dramatic developments in their lives - including the visit of Lev Trotsky, who lives with them for a while.

After Trotsky’s assassination, when the police are taking rather too much interest in the household, Shepherd finally returns to the US, and starts to make a life there - but one in which he is always missing Mexico, and particularly Frida. He starts to write blockbuster novels, set in Mexico’s history, but in many ways a description of the US in which he finds himself. They become hugely popular and bring Shepherd to the centre of his own story for the first time - but it’s the wrong time for him to be noticed, as the US is gripped by McCarthy-ism and people start to look at his background. Shepherd is someone who has always needed to write in order to make sense of the world around him - but what happens when that world stops making sense?

I loved everything about this book - the story, the writing, and so much to think about.

This household is like a pocketful of coins that jingled together for a time, but now have been slapped on a counter to pay a price. The pocket empties out, the coins venture back into the infinite circulations of currency, separate, invisible and untraceable. That particular handful of coins had no special meaning together, it seems, except to pay a particular price. It might remain real, if someone had written everything together in a notebook. No such record now exists.

132dchaikin
Okt. 6, 2018, 10:44pm

I had Bush (W) in mind while reading The Lacuna - the Patriot Act and 9/11, etc. I imagine it takes on a little bit of a different meaning today, darker surely. I liked revisiting through your review.

133wandering_star
Nov. 2, 2018, 10:12pm

81. Sabrina by Nick Drnaso

Sabrina was noted in the media as the first graphic novel to have been long-listed for the Booker Prize (although I don't think the prize committee has been publishing long-lists for that many years) and has been praised as a 'masterpiece' by Zadie Smith.

It's the story of a woman who has disappeared, later confirmed to have been murdered - or rather, the story of how people react to her disappearance/death, from her devastated boyfriend, to the 24-hour media and online conspiracy theorists who always need something to talk about, to those completely outside the story who become drawn into reading the clickbait articles.

I found it relentlessly bleak. The banal awfulness of the story (things like this are horrible but always follow the same arc) is complemented by the flat drawing style. Personally, too, I always get very frustrated when films have a protagonist that just mutely suffers terrible things happening to them, and the main character of this does that too. I did not enjoy reading this at all.

134wandering_star
Nov. 9, 2018, 9:31pm

82. Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday

This book has three sections - the first is the story of an affair between a young woman and a famous writer who is much older; the second is the story of a Muslim American thinking back over his life as he is held and questioned in Heathrow Airport while in transit to see his family; and the third is a transcript of an interview with the famous writer from the first section.

It takes some thought to realise how they fit together: but pieceing together the clues, including from the last section, it seems likely that the second story is written by the girl in the first story, and that one of the themes is about whether a writer can successfully imagine themselves into the head of someone completely different from themselves.

I didn't figure this out until afterwards, though, and so while I was reading it I mainly enjoyed the quality of the writing. In particular, something I found interesting about the first story is that despite being about the relationship between a young woman and a much richer, older man, the power dynamics were unclear - usually in such stories there is a feeling that the woman is being taken advantage of, but this story was so clearly from the young woman's point of view, and she didn't seem to have a sense of that.

After reading the book I discovered that when the author was in her 20s she had a relationship with Philip Roth, and apparently there are clues in the book that 'Ezra' is very similar to Roth. I was a bit disappointed by this - the idea that it was an imagined story was more appealing to me than a roman a clef - perhaps another nod to the book's theme.

Dwarfed by the plane trees, he looked smaller and frailer than he did in the close refuge of his apartment, and for a moment Alice saw what she supposed other people would see: a healthy young woman losing time with a decrepit old man. Or were other people more imaginative and sympathetic than she thought? Might they acknowledge that everything was still more interesting with him than without, and perhaps even that her gameness and devotion were qualities the world needed more of, not less?

135wandering_star
Nov. 9, 2018, 9:40pm

83. The Death of Stalin by Fabien Nury

A blackly comic fictionalised account of the power struggles that took place after Stalin's death. This was the basis for the film of the same name, which I've seen a couple of times - and the film is better, it tightens up some of the jokes and moves things at a faster pace. Interesting to see how they developed the source material, though.

136wandering_star
Nov. 9, 2018, 9:54pm

84. There Are No Ghosts In The Soviet Union by Reginald Hill

Six mystery short stories (despite the subtitle on the book's cover, they aren't Dalziel & Pascoe stories). Several of them are 'twist in the tale' style stories reminiscent of Roald Dahl's short stories.

I absolutely loved the title story, in which a rising policeman is handed the poisoned-chalice task of investigating an apparent encounter with a ghost - but of course that can't be possible, because there are no ghosts in the Soviet Union! A funny and very clever story which managed to be both an effective ghost story and a proper mystery investigation - worth reading the book just for this.

When a Soviet official is given what he regards as an absurd and impossible task, he knows there is only one way to perform it: thoroughly! Whatever conclusions he reaches, he must be certain at least that no matter how finely his researches are combed, there will be no nits for his superiors to pick at. Chislenko saw his task as dividing into two clear areas. First: disprove the ghost. Second: find a culprit. It might have seemed to a non-Soviet police mind that success in the latter would automatically accomplish the former. Chislenko knew better than this, because he knew what every Russian knows: that when it comes to finding culprits, the authorities have free choice out of about one hundred and thirty million candidates.

137wandering_star
Nov. 11, 2018, 4:31am

85. The Looking-Glass Sisters by Gøhril Gabrielsen

An unsettling tale of two sisters, one of whom is disabled and mostly bedridden, and the furious resentment they feel for each other. The two were orphaned at the ages of 19 and 24, and now, 29 years later, the healthy sister is finally (as she would see it) trying to have a life of her own, spending time with a man instead of solely nursing her sister. The narrator of the story though is the other sister, and so we see her sister's life through her embittered eyes - although we can detect from her descriptions of her own behaviour how disruptive and hard to manage it is. The narrator is convinced the sister is now planning to do away with her - but is this just paranoia?

I am not convinced that this story worked. Apart from the horrifying way the sisters treat each other, I didn't really believe that they had been living together like this for almost 30 years, and I had expected that the narrator's fears about her sister's intentions would be paranoia, not justified - the fact that they turned out to be true spoilt the balance between the grievances of the narrating sister and our understanding of the difficulties she must have created for Ragna.

Imagine an attic. Not just any attic, but one in a remote spot in a northern, godforsaken part of the world. Here too lots of things lie packed away: all the rubbish you don’t need, all the memories of a past crammed into boxes and suitcases, invisible to the outside world under a thin layer of forgetfulness and dust.

138wandering_star
Nov. 11, 2018, 4:47am

86. My Brother’s Husband vol. 1 by Gengoroh Tagame

Manga. One day, a hulking Canadian turns up at the doorway of a family house in a small town in Japan. It turns out that he is the widower of the homeowner (Yachi)'s brother, long estranged from the family. It's a big shock for Yachi. He loved and looked up to his brother but never really came to terms with the fact that he was gay - indeed there is a hint that this is why Ryoji lost touch with the family and eventually moved to Canada - and now there is someone living in his home who is foreign to him in almost every way. At first he is uncomfortable and unsure of how to behave, but various factors work on him - from the fact that his daughter is uncomplicatedly delighted to discover she has a foreign uncle that she never knew about, to the fact that as a single father he too has experienced prejudice in his small town. And it turns out that Ryoji told Mike many stories about his brother and their life growing up, so their brotherly connection continued long after Yachi knew.

I found the story a bit simplistic, but Yachi may well be a realistic portrayal of someone who has never had to think about the fact that gay people exist.

139wandering_star
Nov. 11, 2018, 10:50am

87. The Believers by Zoe Heller

This is the story of an extremely unhappy family, with parents who should never have got together (a blackly comic prologue shows how the two of them got together, in what should have been no more than a one-night stand but somehow lasted). Joel is a famous left-wing lawyer, who has a stroke early on in the book - and we see how his family deal with that, and with the woman who claims to have his child.

I am very behind with my reviews, so I actually read this almost two months ago, and I can't quite remember what I wanted to say about it. It was something about the title - perhaps that all the family members have found something that they believe in, maybe as a way to give their lives some structure and meaning in the absence of love for each other and themselves. I do remember though that I really enjoyed the writing.

For all her alleged dedication to collectivist principles, Audrey had never much enjoyed collective action. Her political opinions functioned for her much as arcane tastes in alternative music had once functioned for Rosa’s eight-grade friends: they were a badge of specialness; they served her temperamental need to be a member of a glamorously embattled minority. She proselytized constantly for her causes, but she did not really want to gather adherents, any more than Rosa’s schoolfriend had wanted their beloved indie bands to become chart-topping successes.

140wandering_star
Nov. 11, 2018, 11:07am

88. Blue Light Yokohama by Nicolás Obregón

A thriller set in Japan. A well-regarded police officer commits suicide while investigating the murder of a whole family, which appears to have ritual overtones. Another officer, Iwata, is put on the case - and starts to see connections with many other crimes which are taking place. The book is certainly thrilling, although by the end the extravagant twists and turns became a bit too much for me.

Obregón has visited Japan a few times, and cleverly makes the lead police officer a Japanese who grew up in the US, which helps to explain away any apparently "non-Japanese" behaviours. It was interesting reading a book with a Japanese setting by a foreigner - some of the descriptions resonated with me as they are the sort of things which perhaps a foreigner would notice (whereas for a Japanese person they would just be the normal background of the city). However, other elements didn't quite ring true.

’This is all guesswork, but no, I would say that the killings themselves mean something. Whatever this person’s objective was, I think it’s possible that the death of the family was not the goal in and of itself. The symbol could mean that the murders are not the end product. They could mean something else’.
‘You’re saying the murders are… somehow subordinate to the sun?’

141wandering_star
Bearbeitet: Nov. 11, 2018, 11:16am

89. Shatila Stories published by Peirene Press

I haven't put an author for this book because it is a bit of a strange beast - the product of storytelling workshops run by the publisher Peirene in the Shatila refugee camp in Lebanon. At the end of the workshops, all the participants wrote short narratives, some of which were woven together into a novel (by chopping them up and combining some characters together). This is all explained in the introduction, including the guidelines which the refugees were taught (which I must say seem to me a bit doctrinaire: "A story needs to have a beginning, a middle and an end. There must be an external conflict that changes the course of the story and an internal conflict within the main character. All characters have to want something but only one thing.")

So, perhaps unsurprisingly, the book reads as a slightly uneven collection of linked short stories. It does, though, give a vivid picture of life in the camp, and so is probably a useful initiative in this world, where we seem to have to be reminded that people like these refugees are human beings too.

My lack of friends and loneliness are overwhelming. And as my desperation grows, the more I feel I am being buried alive. Or bricked in. The buildings around me grow higher by the day, unsafe and unregulated, in an attempt to provide shelter for an ever larger number of refugees flooding in from all over Syria. And often when I wake up the sky appears smaller than the previous day.

143wandering_star
Bearbeitet: Nov. 16, 2018, 8:33am

90. Crooked Heart by Lissa Evans

What do you call those films where two very different people are thrown together and have to work together to fight crime or reach a goal or right a wrong? Anyway, this is one of them. Noel is a young evacuee, clever and older than his years, and without close family (he was raised by his godmother, who dies at the start of the book). Because he is gawky and quiet he is the last evacuee to be chosen by a family, and Vera (a single mother in her mid-thirties) spots him just as she is worrying about money - although this isn't as much of a coincidence as you might think, as Vera spends most of the time worrying about money. But although she is crafty and a bit desperate, she is good-hearted, and eventually the two of them don't just get used to each other, but turn into a good team.

An easy read which feels like a heart-warming story, but doesn't shy away from the harsher side of life: light, but not fluffy.

Manna, she’d thought, when Mr Croxton had told her about the flat. Manna. And for the first few months that they’d lived there, the simple joy of not having to find a weekly ten shillings had been as good as a holiday (not that she’d ever had a holiday); anyhow, she’d felt almost carefree, like the lighter-than-air dancing girl in the Ballito hosiery advertisement. She’d even had a dream, one night, that she was on the swingboats with Donald’s father, eating a toffee apple, and that was unusual, since her dreams were nearly always about money: finding it, dropping it, winning it, spending it, losing it. Losing it, mainly.

144wandering_star
Nov. 16, 2018, 8:31am

92. The Waiting Years by Fumiko Enchi

An incredible, and incredibly bleak, look at the lot of women in traditional Japanese society. Written in the 1950s, it covers several decades around the turn of the previous century (although it is episodic, so all this time passes in around 200 pages). in the first episode, Tomo has been despatched to Tokyo by her husband Shirakawa, a rising civil servant - her task is to find him a young mistress, as he's decided that his age and status in society mean it's time for him to have one. You read with a growing sense of horror as you realise how young and innocent Suga (the chosen girl) is, and the fact that she is being taken to her new home without any sense of what her duties will be.

But Tomo is not the villain in this - both she and Suga are trapped by their social position. Suga's family have fallen on hard times and their beautiful, unspoiled daughter is their only asset - when she is feeling guilty Tomo considers the fact that if Suga wasn't joining her family, the same thing would be happening to her somewhere else. And while she feels great pity for Suga, she is also aware that her arrival undermines Tomo's own place in the family.

Over the next decades, Shirakawa continues to feed his own sexual appetites with little consideration for the women he chooses or the family around him; and we see the impact of this on the family. While the story is told in a measured way, there is no mistaking the anger of the writer - at Shirakawa, but also at the society which enables him to destroy other people's lives.

Her {Suga's mother's} home in Kokucho was a mere stone's throw from the Shirakawas' official residence, but a girl in Suga's position could not come and go as she pleased. Whatever she might feel privately, Suga was officially registered as the Shirakawas' daughter, which meant that where society was concerned she had severed all connections with her own family. Although, having gained possession of Suga, Shirakawa lavished affection and advice on this girl young enough to be his daughter in such as way as to convince her that he was a paragon among men, all the while behind the scenes his cruel nature made him careful to tie her down with official restraints lest she run away.

145wandering_star
Nov. 16, 2018, 8:32am

93. Stay With Me by Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀

There were no incisions on my daughter’s body, no lacerations, no scars, not one single lash mark from a previous life. Still they named her Rotimi, a name that implied that she was an Abiku child who had come into the world intending to die as soon as she could. Rotimi - stay with me. It was the name my mother-in-law had chosen, a name that until then I had thought was given to boys alone. I wondered if Moomi had picked Rotimi because it was mutable. If the right prefix was added later on, it would sound normal, stripped of the tortured history that Abiku names announced. Rotimi could easily become Olarotimi - Wealth stays with me. There was no getting around other alternatives like Maku - Don’t die, or Kukoyi - Death, reject this one.

Rotimi, daughter of Yejide and Akin, is particularly precious and beloved because Yejide has not been able to have children - for such a long time that Akin, reluctantly, bowed to the pressure from his family and took a second wife. This starts off being about the strains this put on the marriage, but develops from that.

For me, this was an interesting read but not really something that has stuck with me.

146wandering_star
Nov. 20, 2018, 8:34am

94. The Beautiful Bureaucrat by Helen Phillips

The person who interviewed her had no face. Under other circumstances - if the job market hadn’t been so bleak for so long, if the summer hadn’t been so glum and muggy - this might have discouraged Josephine from stepping through the door of that office in the first place. But as things were, her initial thought was: Oh, perfect, the interviewer’s appearance probably deterred other applicants!

The illusion of facelessness was, of course, almost immediately explicable: The interviewer’s skin bore the same grading tint as the wall behind, the eyes were obscured by a pair of highly reflective glasses, the fluorescence flattened the features assembled above the genderless gray suit.

Still, the impression lingered.


This is how The Beautiful Bureaucrat starts and also how it goes on - managing to maintain throughout a tone which walks the line between the possible and the surreal. The impoverished young couple at the centre of the novel have moved to a new town, and are trying to make a better life for themselves - so when jobs finally come along, they don't ask too many questions - however strange the working environment becomes.

Enjoyably unsettling.

147wandering_star
Nov. 20, 2018, 9:30am

95. Fools and Mortals by Bernard Cornwell

Entertaining, vivid historical fiction with a setting of the rehearsal for the first performances of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream - our narrator is a young actor in the troupe run by Shakespeare's brother Richard.

It was nonsense, of course! It was, as Hippolyta says of Pyramus and Thisbe, ‘the silliest stuff that ever I heard’. But somehow the nonsense worked. It is one of the marvels of the playhouse that whatever you lay in front of the groundlings, they believe. ‘They want to believe,’ my brother once explained. ‘They do half our work for us. They come wanting to be amused, to be impressed, to be awed, to be frightened. And they have imaginations too, and their imaginations amend our work.’

148wandering_star
Bearbeitet: Nov. 25, 2018, 10:12am

96. Conclave by Robert Harris

Because this is by Robert Harris I assumed that the setting for this book (a papal conclave, in which cardinals are choosing the next Pope) was just that - a setting - a backdrop for a story of crime and detection.

Instead, it's the story of the decision - particularly the politicking around the vote. I confess that for most of the reading I wasn't concentrated hard on this, but it seemed a flimsy story for a whole book - not that many twists and turns.

Lomeli drew back slightly. After a lifetime spent listening to secrets, he had developed an instinct for such matters. The vulgar always assumed it was best to try to know everything; in his experience it was often better to know as little as possible.

149dchaikin
Nov. 20, 2018, 1:37pm

A lot of new book posts. Noting, especially, The Waiting Years. Congrats on 12 years here and your planned way of celebrating.

150lilisin
Nov. 21, 2018, 3:23am

>144 wandering_star:

Ah, yes, The Waiting Years is an excellent book. One of the rare books I've ready twice although only because I forget immediately what it's about. In fact I'm thankful your review reminded me of the plot. But still, although I never remember the plot, I do remember it always as being excellent. :)

151SassyLassy
Nov. 21, 2018, 3:20pm

>146 wandering_star: "Enjoyably unsettling". Wonderful description.

152wandering_star
Nov. 26, 2018, 8:07pm

>150 lilisin: Have you read anything else by Enchi? What would you recommend?

153wandering_star
Bearbeitet: Nov. 26, 2018, 8:36pm

97. Shakespeare’s Restless World: A Portrait of an Era in Twenty Objects by Neil MacGregor

A really interesting look into the world in which Shakespeare lived and wrote, told through the stories of twenty objects.

Moroccan gold coins illustrate the relationship between Elizabeth's England and its Moroccan ally, including the visit of the Moroccan ambassador to England in 1600.

Sharif al-Mansur began to take English power seriously only after the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. Morocco also was in a state of more or less permanent war with Spain, and England had suddenly emerged as a useful ally: to celebrate the Queen’s victory over their common enemy, the Sharif encouraged the English residents of Moroccos to light festive bonfires.

Dr Dee's magic mirror is the starting point for a discussion of how the Elizabethans thought about magic.

Among the educated elite, John Dee had an authority similar to that of a modern celebrity scientist, whose work we admire, but can only dimly apprehend. When physicists and astronomers talk to us today of parallel universes and negative matter, few of us know enough ourselves to have any idea whether these conjectures are well founded or not. But we accept that this highly authoritative science appears to explain our world - just as Shakespeare’s contemporaries accepted Dee’s explanations of the workings of stars and spirits.

And so on. A monogrammed silver fork (the absolute latest in foreign luxury) dropped in the theatre and swept up with the oyster shells, inspires a chapter about the way English people saw Italy. A holy relic containing the eye of a martyr, a chapter about the religious tensions. The twentieth object, the so-called "Robben Island Bible" (a copy of the Collected Works, owned by an ANC prisoner, in which other prisoners - including Nelson Mandela - have highlighted their favourite passages) talks about the continued global impact of Shakespeare's plays.

Interesting insights both into that historical period, and into the plays. This started out as a radio programme, so if you are intrigued by this review, you can listen to the original episodes here.

154lilisin
Nov. 26, 2018, 9:19pm

>152 wandering_star:

She hasn't been translated much so the only other recommendation I can make is Masks (which I haven't read yet).

155wandering_star
Nov. 27, 2018, 8:01pm

>154 lilisin: That's a shame. I have just bought a 'Teach Yourself Japanese' book (I might have mentioned when I saw you that I'll be back in October as we have tickets for the rugby?) but I think it will be a while before I'm able to read a novel....

156wandering_star
Nov. 27, 2018, 8:06pm

98. The Art of Discarding: How to get rid of clutter and find joy by Nagisa Tatsumi

Of course, if I spent as much time actually throwing stuff out as reading about how to throw stuff out, I wouldn't need books like this...

That said, I did find this a useful kick up the behind. The writer recognises that having things is nice - she's not a natural minimalist - and the book addresses some of the things which are at the root of having too much stuff, in particular the fear of waste.

Things are given life by being used. Keeping something because it would be a waste to get rid of it is a kind of torture. Free yourself from the waste argument, and you’ll begin to see the value of things.

She does some good tough talking about the pointlessness of hanging onto things 'in case they come in useful' or 'because I'll get round to this sometime'.

As a result of reading this I have managed to throw away about a quarter of my massive pile of magazines. It's a start....

157lilisin
Nov. 27, 2018, 11:49pm

>155 wandering_star:

Oh yay! Learning Japanese is a wonderful journey but it's definitely a long and difficult one!
And no, you did not tell me this! I can't wait to see you then and I'm super jealous that you have tickets to the rugby!

>156 wandering_star:

Lots of baby steps leads to great progress so great job clearing out those magazines!

158wandering_star
Nov. 28, 2018, 12:27pm

>157 lilisin: Am very excited about it! One of the matches is in Shizuoka and I've been wanting to go to the Izu peninsula for ages. Then the other one in Kyushu five days later - in Oita so I think there is some good hot spring action nearby.

I also bid for tickets to England-France in Yokohama but I think that was one of the most oversubscribed games, anyway we didn't get them.

159wandering_star
Nov. 30, 2018, 9:51pm

99. Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

George Washington Black, so named as a sort of hostile joke, is a young man born into slavery on a sugar plantation in Barbados. In another hostile joke, the brutal plantation owner has him wait at table when the owner's idealistic younger brother visits - but this leads to the brother Titch taking Washington Black on as his servant and an assistant in his scientific research - and later on helping him to escape from the plantation. The book then becomes a picaresque adventure, although not a carefree one given the way that Washington escaped.

Beautifully written. To me the theme of the book was about how people treat each other - there is terrible brutality for example on the plantation - but there is also pain and hurt even between people who love each other.

All this I observed with real interest. But my true study remained, I understand now, the curious person of Titch. He was, I feared, becoming increasingly lost within himself. I suppose there must have been a deep love between him and his father, a love I could get no sense for because of its reticence. But as with most loves, it was shadowy, and painful, and confusing, and Titch seemed to me overly eager and too often hurt.

160wandering_star
Bearbeitet: Nov. 30, 2018, 10:07pm

100. Lady Susan by Jane Austen

Lady Susan is one of Austen's first works, started when she was only 18. It's a novel told in letters. The first one has Lady Susan Vernon writing to her brother-in-law, a warm and tender note gracefully accepting his kind invitation to stay. In the second, Lady Susan writes to a close friend about the same trip: she is going to "that insupportable spot, a country village … it is my last resource. Were there another place in England open to me, I would prefer it". She ends that letter with her plans to send her daughter to a school in London - "She will make good connections there, as the girls are all of the best families. The price is immense, and much beyond what I can ever attempt to pay".

So there we are - straight away into the manipulation and plotting. Lady Susan has some great lines:
My dear Alicia, of what a mistake were you guilty in marrying a man of his age! Just old enough to be formal, ungovernable and to have the gout - too old to be agreeable and too young to die.

But we also get to see her through the eyes of others:
Her Ladyship is comforting herself meanwhile by strolling along the shrubbery with Reginald, calling forth all his tender feelings, I suppose, on this distressing occasion. She has been talking a great deal about it to me; she talks vastly well; I am afraid of being ungenerous or I should say she talks too well to feel so very deeply. But I will not look for faults.

I picked this up after watching Whit Stillman's film adaptation, Love and Friendship. Reading this made me like the film even more - the novel is good, but the film actually punches it up a little bit, while keeping the lightly sardonic tone and the cynicism about human relationships.

161wandering_star
Bearbeitet: Dez. 1, 2018, 9:32pm

Finally caught up to November's books!

101. The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner

I know it's lazy to describe something as x meets y, but all the way through this I was thinking - Denis Johnson meets "Orange is the New Black". The way that Kushner uses language - and the hopelessness of the lives described - reminded me a lot of Johnson. And I thought of OITNB not just because the story is set in a woman's prison, but also because of the structure - the main story focuses on a woman called Romy Hall, but there are also chapters telling us the backstory of many of the secondary characters.

This is significant because for most of the people in this book, it's unusual for them to be seen as a human being. They have spent a lot of their lives being processed by blindly hostile bureaucracies.

No Tank Tops, the sign had said at Youth Guidance. Because it was presumed the parents didn’t know better than to show up to court looking like hell. The sign might have said Your Poverty Reeks.

Equally, for the men who go to the Mars Room (where Romy worked as a lapdancer), the women in front of them are not people but fantasies - and most of the women who work there have in their youth encountered men who treated them as means to an end.

This book would be almost unreadably bleak if it wasn't so good, and so compassionate towards its characters - not just because of what has been done to them, but because of what they have done. It doesn't pretend that they are angels, but it does recognise that having committed a crime is also something which has a huge impact on the criminal.

You go to ad seg and you don’t stop having feelings. You hear a woman cry and it’s real. It’s not a courtroom, where they ask all the pertinent and wrong questions, the niggling repeated demands for details, to sort contradiction and establish intent. The quiet of the cell is where the real question lingers in the mind of a woman. The one true question, impossible to answer. The why did you. The how. Not the practical how, the other one. How could you have done such a thing. How could you.

Highly recommended.

162SassyLassy
Dez. 2, 2018, 11:22am

>159 wandering_star: This book just won Canada's Giller Prize for 2018: https://scotiabankgillerprize.ca/esi-dugyan-winner-2018-scotiabank-giller-prize/

I will get to it some day.

163wandering_star
Dez. 2, 2018, 7:55pm

102. Old Filth by Jane Gardam

Jane Gardam frequently appears on lists of under-recognised authors. A few years ago (I've just looked it up and it was ten years!) I tried to read The Queen of the Tambourine but couldn't get into it, and I haven't read any more since. However, I still keep hearing her being praised, and so when I found Old Filth in a second-hand shop I thought it was time to try again.

Old Filth is a lawyer - apparently a pillar of the establishment. He and his wife have retired to the countryside after a life of practising in Hong Kong, and a couple of judgements that made legal history. In the legal world he’s one of those legendary figures whom everyone has heard of but it’s a surprise to run into him in Lincoln’s Inn and realise he is still alive.

In some ways his life is very stereotypical - a ‘Raj orphan’, the child of colonial civil servants who sent him off to the UK for his education. But as he looks back on his long life, we realise that things were much more complicated than that.

I really enjoyed this. It reminded me a little of Penelope Fitzgerald in the way that there are important details which are just hinted at, in a way that the reader could almost miss if they weren't paying attention (although it doesn't need quite such close reading as Fitzgerald). Also, the very light tone - it reads like a gentle satire on a particular class of British society - belies the profound emotions that it describes (but then, in this stratum of society, expressing strong emotions is one of those things which is Not Done).

And there are hints that there are things about his life - or at least his marriage - that he himself does not know. I have just discovered that Gardam wrote another book which tells the same story with his wife at the centre, which I will look out for.

164wandering_star
Dez. 9, 2018, 8:15pm

103. Melmoth by Sarah Perry

After really enjoying Sarah Perry's first two books, I started to follow her on Twitter. I've been looking forward to reading Melmoth since she tweeted about sending the final manuscript off to the publisher.

It's inspired by Melmoth the Wanderer, which Perry has described as her favourite book and "the embodiment of Gothic fiction. It does everything that a Gothic novel should do. It is darkly funny, it has a grim gallows humour, it is utterly terrifying".

In both books Melmoth is a damned soul, condemned to wander the earth for eternity, and s/he finds people at their lowest points and tries to persuade them to change places with him/her. (In Perry's book Melmoth is a woman.)

Also like the original, Perry has a nested structure. The overarching story concerns Helen, a British woman who has self-exiled to live in Prague and deliberately deprived her life of anything pleasurable, as a sort of penance for something which happened in her past. A friend of a friend dies mysteriously in a library where he was researching an ancient myth, and his papers come into her hands - so she reads through them, discovering various incidents where Melmoth supposedly appeared to people. Almost all of these took place at times where humanity has shown itself at its worse - genocides, World War II, etc.

Unfortunately, I found this book pretty meh. I think Helen's story is weak, and that means that there is nothing holding the whole thing together. Firstly, I had initially assumed that Helen would turn out to be a version of Melmoth, given that she had self-exiled into a bleak life, so I was disappointed when this turned out not to be the case. Also, when we discover the event which caused Helen to live in penance - even though it is a bad thing that she did, it had been so built up over the story - and stacked up against the atrocities in the other episodes with Melmoth - it turns into a bit of an anti-climax.

Finally, I just didn't find this all that scary. And I am pathetically easy to unsettle and find it very difficult to read or watch anything in the horror genre. In fact I had been a little bit worried about this because Perry retweeted a lot of tweets from people saying they were enjoying the book and finding it chilling. But it didn't do it for me.

165auntmarge64
Dez. 9, 2018, 10:10pm

Happy anniversary on LT!

166wandering_star
Bearbeitet: Dez. 14, 2018, 8:35pm

>165 auntmarge64: Thank you!

104. The Gallows Pole by Benjamin Myers

This is based on the true story of the Cragg Vale Coiners, a late eighteenth-century gang of forgers who were based in a remote area of the Yorkshire moors.

Myers takes the historic facts and turns them into a vivid, gripping story with more than a hint of folk horror in its style. The Coiners, led by "King" David Hartley, are swaggering, almost Robin Hood characters - it's the cusp of the Industrial Revolution and the bosses are bringing in weaving machines which will take away the living of many of the villagers. There is an incredible elementalness about the writing, in particular about the setting on the moors, and the impact this has on the people who live there.

The earth was in his father's scalp and his stubble. It had become him. His body hosted smoke. It was stirred into his essence to dilute that which made him human so that he was now part of the landscape and part of the fire; he was made of the smoke that billowed and rolled and tumbled during the slow process that took felled timber through combustion to become the shards and clots of carbon that fuelled fires and furnaces the length and breadth of Calderdale. He was wood-smoke manifest; man as a settled miasma.

One of my top reads of the year (and after finishing it I bought several of Myers' other books).

167wandering_star
Bearbeitet: Dez. 14, 2018, 8:36pm

105. Blacksad by Juan Diaz Canales

This was terrific too - a comic of hard-boiled detective stories, set in a world where the characters are all animals... or animalesque humans? humanoid animals? - you'll see what I mean from this extract:



This volume collects the first four of, I think, only six Blacksad stories that were written - I've added the other two to my wishlist.

168wandering_star
Bearbeitet: Dez. 14, 2018, 8:36pm

106. The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch (audiobook, unabridged)

I first listened to this audiobook back in 2015 and at the time I didn't think it was that great. But somehow I periodically find myself thinking about it, and so when I wanted to listen to an audiobook recently I put it on. I liked it so much more than I did last time! I think that might be because the story is structured in quite a complicated way, and this time I listened to the whole thing in a weekend, which meant that I grasped how all the different bits fitted into the story. It's basically the story of a complex heist, set in a sort of medieval city-state, in a world where magic exists.

As a young orphan, Locke Lamora displays a precocious talent for criminality - but so little restraint or common sense that the thief-master in desperation sells him on to a colleague, the famous blind priest (who of course, is neither blind nor a priest, but someone who trains Locke and a few other kids to Sherlock Holmes-ian abilities to disguise themselves. This backstory is interleaved with the story of the heist - but it turns out that there is a far greater threat facing Locke and his comrades than simply being found out.

As I said, I really enjoyed it this time around, and have downloaded the sequel.

169wandering_star
Dez. 21, 2018, 10:08am

107. Goblin by Ever Dundas

This story interleaves two stories - young 'Goblin' running wild during the Blitz, and a much older Goblin in the modern era, trying to suppress memories of the past. Those memories have been brought out again by the discovery of a camera, buried during the war, with film in it which could still be developed. That, and the objects found with the camera, hit the news and start to bring back Goblin's memories.

At its best this was reminiscent of We Have Always Lived in the Castle - in the offbeat and slightly macabre way that Goblin sees the world. But the story in modern times was much less engaging and I think the book tried to make too many things happen as we got to the climax.

I lit candles and listened for bombs, but there was nothing. I traced my fingers across the coffins in the crypt, all covered in dust and scuttling insects. I wanted to break them open to see a real skelton but I was afraid and pretended it was really respect for the dead because goblins shouldn’t be afraid of anything, especially dead things.

170wandering_star
Bearbeitet: Dez. 21, 2018, 10:12am

108. The House on Half Moon Street by Alex Reeve

A very competent historical murder mystery (Victorian London) with the twist that the detective is a trans man.

171wandering_star
Dez. 21, 2018, 10:18am

109. Time Present and Time Past by Deirdre Madden

It is Ireland in the spring of 2006 and failure, once an integral part of the national psyche, is an unpopular concept these days.

That may be the case, but can a nation ever escape from its history and memories? People certainly can't. Almost nothing actually happens in this story - a man called Fintan becomes interested in old photographs, which leads to a few small ripples spreading through his family - but actually it's about the effect of history and memories on people. I really enjoyed reading this.

(Looking at the other LT reviews, RebeccaNYC's includes this (from TS Eliot's Four Quartets

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present.


- which makes a lot of sense as the inspiration for the title of this novel.)

172wandering_star
Dez. 21, 2018, 11:03am

110. The Facts of Life and Death by Belinda Bauer

Ten-year-old Ruby lives in a village by the sea - but this isn't a picturesque village but rather one which is squashed into a dank crevice between two steep hills, with crumbling cliffs and creepy ruins facing you if you wander off the path. Ruby can't quite understand what the adults are whispering about, but we know that women are being attacked and killed, or disappearing. This starts out as a mystery but part-way through morphs into a psychological thriller. I found the style a little bit hard to get into a first but once I got used to it, I was absorbed by the story - which makes effective use of the eerie setting.

173wandering_star
Dez. 26, 2018, 2:13am

111. The Divorce of Henry VIII: The Untold Story by Catherine Fletcher

The original title of this book was "Our Man in Rome: Henry VIII and his Italian Ambassador". It focuses on the negotiations around Henry's divorce, and the person of his ambassador to the Pope, Gregorio Casali. It is so interesting to see the divorce from the perspective of Rome, and in the context of the times.

For example, I had no idea that Henry's request for a divorce was pretty reasonable: - "Louis XII of France had had his marriage annulled too, in 1498, when, for political reasons, he wanted to make a dynastic alliance with his cousin’s widow, Anne of Brittany. His legal argument had been quite dubious, but Pope Alexander VI had been on his side, and that was enough. It was not hard to find a technical inadequacy in the betrothal paperwork on which to base an annulment, particularly when everyone involved agreed that the discovery of such an inadequacy was highly desirable."

It was not religious scruples that made the Pope refuse the request, but his desire to stay on the good side of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, nephew of Katherine of Aragon and commander of mighty forces which were making their way down Italy - and had the potential to restore the rule of the Medicis (ie Pope Clement's family) in Florence.

Moreover, the Pope didn't really want to say no - just to spin the decision out for as long as possible - no-one really thought that Henry would split from the Catholic Church as a result.

Sometimes this was a bit more detailed than I really needed, but overall I found it an enjoyable and interesting read.

174wandering_star
Dez. 26, 2018, 2:24am

112. Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: Adventures in Modern Russia by Peter Pomerantsev

Pomerantsev, a Brit of Russian origin, worked in TV in Russia in the late noughties. This is the story of his experiences - some of the people he met while making documentaries and features, and the way that his bosses at the TV station picked the right stories to present to peple.

The first thing the President had done when he came to power in 2000 was to seize control of television. It was television through which the Kremlin decided which politicians it would 'allow' as its puppet opposition, what the country’s history and fears and consciousness should be. And the new Kremlin won’t make the same mistake the old Soviet Union did: it will never let TV become dull.

The title of the book is an excellent summary of the weird, surreal world he shows us. Gangsters become heroes. Humiliation is presented as personal liberation. Opposition activists are created in an image which suits the government. Crazy and terrifying - and, given Pomerantsev's place at the heart of the propaganda machine, very illuminating about the world that we seem to live in now - on social media at least. I raced through this - it's an easy read - but I will be thinking about it for a long time.

175wandering_star
Dez. 26, 2018, 2:42am

113. Be Like the Fox: Machiavelli's Lifelong Quest for Freedom by Erica Benner and 114. The Garments of Court and Palace: Machiavelli and the World that He Made by Philip Bobbitt

I'm glad I read these back-to-back, as they give quite different interpretations of Machiavelli's philosophy. They do agree in some aspects - for example, Machiavelli's fundamental desire for a republic rather than a princely state, and the fact that The Prince needs to be read alongside his other writing to understand it - but they deal differently with the apparent inconsistencies in Machiavelli's work. Benner argues that much of his advice is sarcastic - if you read between the lines he is actually poking fun at the prince he pretends to serve. Bobbitt, on the other hand, thinks that Machiavelli most of all wanted to build a constitutional order. If this has to come under a prince, so be it - so that advice is real.

I enjoyed Benner's book more, but in the end I was a little more persuaded by Bobbitt's argument. Benner's Machiavelli seems more fun - she quotes a lot of his other writing and he comes through as a man of wit and passion. She also explains a lot more of the historical context, which I found useful. Bobbitt rather handily decides that Machiavelli is one of the first exponents of constitutional theory, his own field, and has a very bad habit of quoting himself in order to back this up. But he gives us a much more structured analysis of Machiavelli's philosophy.

Benner: He adopts the persona of a cold-blooded adviser to new rulers, one who teaches them how to use other princes, foreign peoples, and their own subjects to serve their soaring ambitions. Yet his writing turns hot, nearly bursts into flame, when he describes how free peoples avenge themselves on those who attack their freedom. And he delights in playing with his readers, testing their ability to see past first appearances, letting sly wit ooze through some of the deadpan lines.

Bobbitt: The Prince represents Machiavelli’s solution to the problem of destiny and fate. The Prince counterposes two ideas – fortuna and virtù. It answers the question whether or not a prince can control his fate by suggesting that he can, mainly through the sufficient exercise of virtù. The metaphor for this struggle between fortuna and virtù given by Machiavelli is that of a mighty river, the currents and tides of fortune, that is banked and directed by levies, the product of human ingenuity and enterprise.

Machiavelli: Because therefore a prince must sometimes practise the ways of beasts, he should choose from among them the fox and the lion, for while the lion cannot defend himself from traps, the fox cannot protect himself from wolves. It is therefore necessary to be a fox in order to recognize traps, and a lion in order to frighten wolves: those who rely only on the ways of the lion do not appreciate this.

176wandering_star
Dez. 26, 2018, 2:49am

115. The Suitcase by Sergei Dovlatov

I am not sure whether to describe this as a memoir or a collection of short stories. I think probably the latter, but the narrator is a character very like Dovlatov himself - a writer and Soviet emigré to the US. One day, he opens the old suitcase which he brought with him when he left the USSR, and finds eight items in it. Each item then inspires one of these stories. A pair of boots, of a quality which would only be available to a member of the nomenclatura, reminds him of the official banquet where he stole them from their owner. A pair of socks, made in Finland, leads to a story about his brief flirtation with the black market. It's a light read, but contains a lot.

A woman can do three things for a Russian writer: She can feed him, she can sincerely believe in his genius, and she can leave him alone. By the way, the third does not preclude the second and first.

177SassyLassy
Dez. 26, 2018, 6:03pm

>174 wandering_star: and >175 wandering_star: Making note of these.

>173 wandering_star: This was a book I really liked. I went back to see what I said about it. The only reason I mention this is because among the people commenting on it were some who are missed here, among them rebeccanyc, steventx, MrDurick, and DieFledermaus. Some may turn up again, sadly others will not.

This was another great reading year for you.

178wandering_star
Dez. 29, 2018, 10:44am

>177 SassyLassy: - yes, it has been great! Some really excellent reads and a high quality overall, I think (although if I don't like a book I rarely finish it, so the ones that get reviewed on here skew good)

179wandering_star
Dez. 29, 2018, 10:50am

116. Long Way Home by Eva Dolan

Detective story - the first in a series featuring Inspector Zigic and Sergeant Ferreira of the Peterborough Hate Crimes Squad. Zigic is a third-generation Brit, of Serbian stock. Ferreira is a Portuguese immigrant.

For anyone who doesn't know East Anglia - it depends on a high degree of migrant labour, particular in the agricultural industry (picking vegetables, flowers and fruit) and construction. It also contains some of the highest Brexit-supporting areas of the country. Long Way Home was released in 2014, so well before the vote - but it's a good portrayal of the lives of the migrant workers and recent immigrants in an environment which is often hostile and abusive. Good read for anyone who likes to read crime novels with interesting settings.

‘When pay?’ Xin Gao asked. The English started towards them and Paolo shook his head slightly, telling Xin Gao not to speak any more, and he caught on, stepped away. They divided up the work with hand gestures and shoves, shouting at anyone who didn’t move fast enough. It was unnecessary – they had been on the job for weeks, knew the procedure – but the English liked the sound of their own voices.

180wandering_star
Dez. 30, 2018, 1:07am

117. Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski

It turns out I have read this before - although I didn't realise it until I got to the devastating final lines of the book. Unfortunately, the first read was pre-LT so I don't have a review to remind me what I thought of it the first time round. But this time I thought it was incredible.

The story focuses on a man called Hilary Wainwright, whose wife has been killed by the Nazis in occupied France (she was in the Resistance). He had to flee France shortly after his baby son was born, but never knew what had happened to the boy after his wife was killed. In Part One of the book, "The Loss", he is visited by Pierre, a man who knew his wife - and has come to tell Hilary that his son has disappeared - the woman who was looking after him was also caught and executed. Part Two is "The Search". After the war's end, Pierre searches for Hilary's son - and comes to him to say, he has found a boy in an orphanage which he believes is the best candidate to be his son. Then starts Part Three, "The Ordeal". Because Hilary has closed himself off emotionally after the devastation of the war, and faced with a young boy who may be his son - but who is certainly in need of family to love him - he has to decide whether or not he is willing to open himself up again in order to rescue another.

In fact, the theme of the whole book is about morality and what happens when we are tested. In addition to Hilary's story, the theme is highlighted through the experience of France under the occupation, and the extent to which people collaborated.

He burst out to Pierre as soon as the porter had put down the bag and closed the door, 'Don't you wonder, with every stranger you meet, what he did under the Occupation?'
'Oh yes,' said Pierre promptly, 'but automatically now and without caring about the answer. I'm tired with "collaborationist" as a term of abuse; we each did under the Germans what we were capable of doing; what that was, was settled long before they arrived.'

181wandering_star
Dez. 30, 2018, 1:22am

118. Restless City and Christmas Gold by Cyprian Ekwensi

My edition of this was published in 1975, as part of Heinemann's African Writers Series. On the back it describes Ekwensi as 'the Nigerian Defoe' and 'as important to West African literature as Nkrumah to its politics'.

"Restless City" and "Christmas Gold" are two of the short stories in the collection, and like the other stories they are glimpses at city life in Nigeria. "Restless City" is about the arrival back in Nigeria of a young man who has been studying in the UK - he sees the city through different eyes, having been away, and also because he is bringing his white British wife with him. "Christmas Gold" I liked a lot less - it was a slightly simplistic morality tale about the need to be generous rather than grasping, in the Christmas period.

Overall I found the collection of stories interesting for the setting and context, rather than the structure or the writing.

There was nothing to choose between her and the dead Grace, except one thing. This was sharper than a razor blade. She was more explosive than a stick of phosphorus. I would not like to have her try to wreck my own home; she looked the type to take any decent family and tear it up into bits. She wore shoes definitely purchased in Dakar. She was as sophisticated as an ingenious French automobile and thrice as slick.

182wandering_star
Dez. 30, 2018, 1:45am

119. Stet by Diana Athill

When Stet was published in 2000, I remember reading pages of rave reviews, and thinking slightly scornfully that 'well of course, book-world people will be interested in the memoirs of a publisher, but who else would want to read it?' Since then, Diana Athill has become one of my favourite writers, and probably my favourite memoirist, for her honesty, thoughtfulness and charm. And so finally I have got round to reading this and I can confirm that it's a good read for anyone interested in books, even if they don't work in the industry.

The first half consists of Athill's memoirs of her years working for the publisher Andre Deutsch, and the second half has chapters on several of the writers whom Athill edited - including Jean Rhys, of whom Athill's memories are fascinating:

No one who has read Jean Rhys' first four novels can suppose that she was good at life; but no one who never met her could know how very bad at it she was ... The trouble was, she kept up a gallant front. In the letters we exchanged between 1957, when she said that her book would be finished in 'six or nine months', and March 1966, when she announced that it was finished, she would refer to being held up by domestic disasters such as leaking pipes, or mice in the kitchen, and she would make the disasters sound funny. Not until I met her did I understand that for Jean such incidents were appaling: they knocked her right out because her inability to cope with life's practicalities went beyond anything I ever saw in anyone generally taken to be sane.

(The book in question, by the way, is Wide Sargasso Sea.)

183wandering_star
Bearbeitet: Dez. 30, 2018, 1:56am

Well, I'm caught up at last, and I am not likely to start and finish another book between now and the end of the year, so here are my top reads of what has been (as >177 SassyLassy: pointed out) a great year.

Top six reads:
Dept of Speculation by Jenny Offill
The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner
The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes
Circe by Madeline Miller
The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui
The Gallows Pole by Benjamin Myers

plus honourable mentions for:
The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver
Time Present and Time Past by Deirdre Madden
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck
The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard

Favourite non-fiction:
Tinderbox by Megan Dunn (creative non-fiction)
I Contain Multitudes by Ed Yong (popular science)

184wandering_star
Feb. 16, 2019, 6:33am

For the record, my last three reads of the year were:

120. Sophie and the Sibyl by Patricia Duncker - the Sibyl of the title is George Eliot, and this is a look at the later years of her life and the impact she had on those around her, in particular through the eyes of her German publisher Max and his fiancee and later wife, Sophie.

The Sibyl manifested many little weaknesses, and one of them, which seemed bizarre to Wolfgang, who calculated her sales figures on a regular basis, was her craving for admiration and praise. She needed a young man, a handsome young man, attentive at her elbow, holding her shawl, and confirming her charismatic magnetism with every devoted glance.

121. Fup by Jim Dodge, a short (and to me, rather odd) novella about a cranky farmer, his adopted grandson and a duck which is almost part of the family.

For a while, after dinner Tiny and Granddaddy Jake had tried to teach Fup to play checkers, but after a few months they gave up. It wasn't that she didn't comprehend the nature of the game - even, perhaps, its nuances - she just did not like it when they tried to remove one of her checkers from the board.

122. Early Travel Photography, a collection of photographs by Burton Holmes, who became famous in the early twentieth century for lectures about his travels around the world, accompanied by photos. This book includes a few pictures from each of the places that he travelled to - and he certainly had some amazing experiences, from witnessing the coronation of Haile Selassie to seeing Vesuvius erupt. But some of his descriptions don't quite ring true (eg the East End of London) and I only found a few of the photographs really interesting. However, his archive is available on Flickr here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/burtonholmesarchive/sets