Rachbxl reads in 2018
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This year I decided not to start a thread until I had finished my first book of the year, which is why I’m a bit late.
2017 was a dismal reading year for me, for various reasons. I read just under 30 books, including a proportion of crime fiction, which for me is usually comfort reading for when nothing else will hit the spot. But last year even crime fiction stopped working, which left me with nowhere to go, book-wise. (It should have been the opportunity to branch out and discover new genres, but I was feeling way too listless and tired for that!) My reading really picked up in the last month or so of 2017, and I’m hoping to ride that wave for a while to come.
When I looked back at my reading for the favourites thread, I was surprised that, in spite of everything, quite a few books stood out (a fairly high proportion of a not very high total), several being things I read late in the year.
My overall favourite was A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson. Other notables were:
The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien
The Invisible Ones by Steff Penney
The Polish Officer by Alan Furst
The Greatcoat by Helen Dunmore
I read unusually little translated literature last year, and almost nothing in languages other than English, both of which I hope to address this year. I don’t want to set goals, though, as I just want to enjoy reading more. (If I were setting goals, another would be to finish some of the many TBR books I’ve started and put aside in the last couple of years; I did this a couple of years ago, and I gave me a nice sense of having finished things off - and several of the books were excellent).
1. Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (Ghana/USA)
2. The Tobacconist by Robert Seethaler (Austria, translation)
3. Across the China Sea by Gaute Heivoll (Norway, translation)
4. Manuel d’exil: Comment réussir son exil en trente-cinq leçons by Velibor Čolić (Bosnia, in French)
5. The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist (Sweden, in translation)
6. The Sunlight Pilgrims by Jenni Fagan (Uk)
7. My Struggle, Book 1: A Death in the Family by Karl Ove Knausgaard (Norway, translation)
8. The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim (UK)
9.Autumn by Ali Smith (UK)
10. Nunca pasa nada by José Ovejero (Spain, in Spanish)
11. The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen (USA/Vietnam)
12. Before I Burn by Gaute Heivoll (Norway, translation)
13. Before I Go to Sleep by SJ Watson (UK)
14. Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood (Canada)
15. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (USA)
16. Chanson douce by Leïla Slimani (Morocco/France, in French)
17. Upstairs at the Party by Linda Grant (UK)
18. The Dry by Jane Harper (Australia)
19. Sarah Thornhill by Kate Grenville (Australia)
20. Force of Nature by Jane Harper (Australia)
21.The Wire in the Blood by Val McDermid (UK)
22. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman (UK)
23. The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan (UK)
24. The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain (UK)
25. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (USA)
26. Devil May Care by Sebastian Faulks (UK)
27. The Optimist’s Daughter by Eudora Welty (USA)
28. The Night Watch by Sarah Waters (UK)
29. Petit Pays by Gaël Faye (Rwanda/France)
30. Snap by Belinda Bauer (Uk)
31. Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie (Pakistan)
32. The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje (Sri Lanka)
33. The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters (UK)
34. Stay with Me by Ayobami Adebayo (Nigeria)
35. My Struggle: Book 2: A Man in Love by Karl Ove Knausgård (Norway, translation)
36. When Time Runs Out by Elina Hirvonen (Finland, translation)
37. Hot Milk by Deborah Levy (UK)
38. Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney (Ireland)
39. Transcription by Kate Atkinson (UK)
40. A Darker Domain by Val McDermid (UK)
Read aloud with my daughter:y
My Naughty Little Sister by Dorothy Edwards
More Naughty Little Sister Stories
My Naughty Little Sister and Bad Harry
When My Naughty Little Sister WAs Good
My Naughty Little Sister’s Friends
Ballerina Dreams by Michaela & Elaine DePrince
George Speaks by Dick King-Smith
Pugly Bakes a Cake
Milly-Molly-Mandy Stories by Joyce Lankester Brisley
Sophie in the Saddle by Dick King-Smith
I had told myself that I would read this book as soon as a copy fell into my hands, and during a far-from-ideal trip to Waterstones when I was back in the UK last week (I dream of going to an English bookshop with neither husband nor small child), it leapt out at me, and I started it that evening. Slavery is a subject that has risen to the top of my mind in the last 18 months or so, thanks in part to a work-related visit to the excellent (but necessarily difficult) International Slavery Museum in Liverpool, and in part to the fact that my cousin’s partner is from the area of Cape Coast Castle, which, as anyone who has read Homegoing will know, was a major holding-place for slaves before they were loaded on to ships.
Homegoing is a family saga which takes us from the heyday of slavery in West Africa in the 1700s to the present day. It tells the tale of the descendants of two sisters who never knew each other, one sold into slavery, the other given no choice but to marry a slave trader. Each chapter tells the story of one member of one generation from one of the two branches of the family, in chronological order, after which we don’t hear from them again. This bothered me a little at first, as I wanted to know what happened to the characters, but I soon accepted that that wasn’t the point, and came to see this as a particularly effective way of telling this particular story. The characters are like actors who appear on stage out of darkness, tell their story, then fade back into darkness, making way for others. In this way, Gyasi gets her message across without having to spell it out - the devastating impact of slavery was passed from generation to generation, and is still felt even today.
I was impressed by how lifelike all the characters are, despite not appearing for long in most cases, and by the vivid portrayal of life in African tribal villages in times past. After this the narrative moves to the USA, where the characters in focus are first slaves, and later free. I found some of the chapters on the free men and women a little less vivid and less compelling, but this is a small criticism of a magnificent book, the kind of book that reminds me why I read fiction, and why fiction is so important.
It's nice to see you back again. Wishing you a good year and maybe at least one ideal trip to a good bookstore.
>5 dchaikin: Exactly, Dan. Not a place I knew much about either, and I found it fascinating. Reading novels like this always makes me go off and find out more.
>6 labfs39: I'm not good at reading non-fiction, and for the moment I've just about resigned myself to that. But I still want to learn about places, events, people, etc, and as I said in my response to Dan, reading novels like this tends to send me off on a hunt for facts (limited to a bit of googling, I'm afraid, rather than non-fiction books).
>7 .Monkey.: Yes and yes!
I am not a huge nonfiction reader myself, perhaps 4 or 5 books a year on a wide range of subjects; certainly it's less than a quarter of my reading. It was 12% last year, 16% in 2016 and 22% in 2015. I think it depends on my ability to concentrate.
Homegoing was already on my radar, but your review has made me all the keener to read it.
>10 avaland: concentration is part of it for me, definitely. And last year I didn’t have much of it! So you’re back at the bookstore?
>11 Rebeki: good to see you! Yes, it feels good to be off to such a flying start - and last night I finished another good one too.
Translated from the German by Charlotte Collins
Seventeen-year-old Franz has never left his mountainous home region when he is sent to Vienna to be apprenticed to a tobacconist, an old acquaintance of his mother’s. The tobacconist, who lost a leg in the First World War and received the business as compensation, runs his little shop with a dignified pride, which Franz, who so far has had not a care in the world, quickly adopts. The tobacconist tells him to spend his working days sitting on a stool near the door, reading the papers. Nobody in Franz’s home region reads anything more complex than the parish newsletter, but Franz persists, and comes to see that different newspapers recount the same events but from entirely different perspectives.
Franz slowly gets to know the regular customers, who include the octogenarian Professor Sigmund Freud, with whom he builds up an unlikely friendship, with Freud giving Franz advice when he falls in love for the first time. Meanwhile, Franz and his mother exchange weekly postcards which are included in the narrative.
However, it is 1937, and shortly after Franz’s arrival in Vienna, Austria is annexed by Germany. The world gradually but inevitably becomes a darker, more confusing, more frightening place, in stark contrast to Franz’s memories of his simple rural childhood. Franz’s turmoil as he falls in love is reflected in the turmoil all around him. The tobacconist’s is attacked for continuing to serve Jewish customers, Freud among them.
I knew the ending wasn’t going to be a happy one, but when it came, it was devastating.
I very much enjoyed this quiet, gentle novel, which could so easily have wallowed in sadness but never does. Somehow I even take away a message of hope. Even in the darkness, people do things that give us a little light, and even if that light is quickly snuffed out, sooner or later someone else will try.
I tend to be a little irked when real characters appear in fiction. What did you think of the appearance of Freud in The Tobacconist?
btw, are you mostly reading in English these days or still reading in other languages...weren't you working on adding Polish to that?
>15 japaul22:, >17 auntmarge64:, >18 NanaCC:, >19 labfs39: This isn’t what I expected, though I’m pleased to have alerted you to this lovely book. I picked it up when I was back in the UK over New Year, and somehow I assumed I was late to the party (as often seems to be the case with me and books lately) and that everyone here would have read it already! (I carefully avoided looking it up on LT before writing my commments).
>16 avaland: ‘working alone surrounded by books’ is not at all what I do, but it sounds perfect... Last year I didn’t finish anything that wasn’t in English (it was such a bad reading year that I was just pleased to be reading anything at all!), although I read about 200 pages of La catedral del mar (Cathedral of the Sea) by Idelfonso Falcones. I put it to one side because I have a huge hardback edition which isn’t transportable, but I plan to get back to it soon. And yes, Polish is another of my languages.
Thanks for clarifying this point! The idea of Freud as a character is interesting.
Manuel d'exil: Comment réussir son exil en trente-cinq leçons by Velibor Colic (An impulse buy because I liked the look of it. Colic, originally from Bosnia, deserted from the Bosnian army in 1992 and fled to France as a refugee. He initially published in Serbo-Croat, but now writes in French, and has won various prizes).
Petit pays by Gael Faye (I had made a note of this one late last year. Faye is a Franco-Rwandan singer/song-writer, and the 'Petit pays' is Burundi).
The Sunlight Pilgrims by Jenni Fagan (I decided to allow myself one book from the English section, as long as it was something I hadn't heard of).
But the one I'm most excited about is in neither French nor English, and (drum roll, please) it's (gasp) NON-FICTION:
La guerra civil espanola by Paul Preston and José Pablo Garcia Garcia has taken Paul Preston's seminal work on the Spanish Civil War (bits of which I have read, but which in its original form I was, to my regret, unlikely to read more of) and adapted it into graphic format. I will report back, but I think that THIS is non-fiction which I can manage. In fact, I can't wait to get home and get started. (In my other role I can legitimately read during at least some of my working hours, but perhaps not here in the office).
Translated from the Norwegian by Nadia Christensen
I started several books after reading The Tobacconist, but nothing grabbed me, and I feared I was falling into my first reading slump of the year. However, a few days ago I was intrigued by avaland’s comments about Across the China Sea (she said it left the reader feeling changed), and downloaded a sample immediately. I bought the full e-book as soon as I had finished the sample. I was so desperate to read it that I read the whole thing on my phone, definitely a first for me, and I couldn’t wait to get back to it.
In a nutshell, a middle-aged man looks back on life as he clears out his parents’ house after his mother’s death, his father having died a decade earlier. Memory after memory of life in the house comes back, some details overlapping, others always just out of the frame, building up a picture for the reader. But as well as somewhere to bring up their own children, the purpose-built house ‘at the end of the world’ was somewhere the narrator’s parents, psychiatric nurses both, could provide long-term care for mentally disabled ‘patients’, who over the long years came to be almost additional family members.
And that’s about it, except that this is one of the most powerful, moving books I’ve read in a long time. Reading it was like jumping into cold water - breath-taking, sometimes painful, sometimes unbearable...all that, and afterwards a sense of exhilaration and well-being. My life is somehow better for having read this story, for knowing that these people, with all their flaws as well as their qualities, these very human people, lived out their lives in a remote corner of a country I’ve never visited, even if only in Heivoll’s imagination (and now they live on in mine).
(And now I’m REALLY stuck for what to read next!)
I fail to understand how the title is connected to the content, is there an explanation of that in the book?
>37 dchaikin:, >39 avaland: Yes, I was wondering about that! Avaland, book-pusher extraordinaire, said you had ENOUGH BOOKS?
I also loved Homegoing; my only, and really minor, complaint was that I felt the ending was a bit contrived.
I've added Across the China Sea and The Tobacconist to my WL. Wonderful comments.
(Not translated into English)
Velibor Čolić was born in Bosnia. Already a prize-winning writer when the war broke out in former Yugoslavia, he reluctantly joined the Bosnian army, only to desert in 1992 after seeing a young girl killed by a sniper. He fled to France as a refugee, and has lived there ever since. He originally wrote in Serbo-Croate, but now writes in French (despite knowing no French when he arrived), having decided to leave his mother tongue (and everything he had lived through in it) behind.
Manuel d’exil is a ficionalised memoir, or a novel based on real events, and it’s hard to know what really happened to Čolić and what didn’t, as he tells the story of his struggle to find his feet as a refugee in Western Europe, but I don’t think that matters. To me the point of this book is to get across the sheer grimness of life for refugees, and Čolić succeeds, and he does so in a way that makes me want to read more of his work. He doesn’t dwell on things, he doesn’t feel sorry for himself; he tells his story with a mordant humour which often made me laugh out loud. But then I couldn’t just read on, because each time he got me to think beyond the laughter and try to grasp the sadness, the loneliness, the awfulness that he’s hinting at. For example, there is a very funny section about how, newly arrived in France and housed in a refugee centre, he makes ‘friends’ with a pair of Russians. They are such an unlikely trio - the gentle, philosophical writer (who, in the army, only ever shot his AK47 high in the sky, sure to miss everyone and everything) and these two thugs (who go on to join the French Foreign Legion), and Čolić milks his accounts of their nights out together. He tells a good story, and I laughed along...but the subtext tells a different tale, one of loneliness and desperation and ‘anything rather than another night on my own in that refugee centre crammed with people as desperate as I am’.
Later sections of the book are devoted to his travels around Europe, flitting from one woman to another, one group of friends to another. At first I was frustrated by this because I was interested in his life in France, less so in his trips, and these trips seemed oddly random in nature, haphazard, and his experiences sounded superficial...but then I realised that they are indeed random and haphazard, and superficial, and, I think, are to be taken as an indication of just how lost the narrator/Čolić was, and how hard it is it put down roots somewhere new.
The current events in France make me wonder if its not much more difficult now to obtain refugee status in France than it was at the time...
>49 chlorine: Thanks. Yes, you may be right there.
>50 kac522: and thanks to you for mentioning A Whole Life, which has gone straight on my wishlist.
Translated from the Swedish by Marlaine Delargy
Sweden, some time in the near future. After a referendum (this is a democracy, after all, as several characters remind us), changes are brought in, whereby once women hit 50, and men 60, those deemed to be ‘dispensable’ (essentially those who have never had children, though there are initially some protected professions, like schoolteacher, midwife, etc) are shipped off to a ‘unit’ like the one here. The unit is an entirely artificial construct (even the daylight is artificial), completely cut off from ‘the community’. Each resident has their own comfortable apartment, and access to an amazing range of leisure facilities, as well as hair salons, clothes shops, food shops, a library, etc. Essentialiy, they want for nothing, and it’s all theirs for free. But as we all know, there’s no such thing as a free lunch, and the residents pay in a most disturbing way - they are used in scientific experiments, and as living organ and tissue donors, all to the benefit of the ‘needed’ (people who have children) in the community that deems them dispensable, before finally making their ‘final donation’, on which occasion they don’t return from the operating theatre.
I do like a good dystopian novel, so this was right up my street. There were whiffs of Atwood (the construction of a near-future society which horrifies all the more because it’s all too easy to see how it might have been arrived at), and even of Camus (like the inhabitants of Oran in The Plague, the isolated residents of the unit react to their plight in different ways, some going gently, others angry, yet others trying to resist, and so on).
I don’t want to go into details of the plot here (the story is narrated by Dorrit, whom we meet just as she enters the unit), but I found it a truly gripping story. There are some parts I found less convincing than others (and I could have done without the sex scenes - I’m no prude, but I thought they were quite gratuitous), but it’s a first novel and I would happily read more of Holmqvist’s work...except that she doesn’t appear to have published anything since (2006), although there was a short story collection before the novel.
I read this now because I sometimes download a sample of a book that catches my eye on LT, leaving me with lots of samples and no idea who recommended them originally. A quick snoop on LT shows that avaland read The Unit a couple of years ago, so I imagine that’s why I had the sample.
>56 avaland: I just felt there was a bit too much information for no purpose I could see! I’d have been happy to have it left to my imagination.
>57 baswood: The idea of using forced living donors, yes, certainly, but the two stories are quite different. I found The Unit more chilling, actualiy, because whilst the donors in Never Let Me Go are clones, in The Unit they are simply childless people over a certain age - somewhere in the world a decision could be taken to start doing that tomorrow (unlikely, but it could happen), whereas the world of Never Let Me Go is further removed from us, less immediate, harder to imagine.
>60 avaland: yes, I agree. I spoke of childless people of a certain age, but that was in an effort to simplify - actually it’s more arbitrary than that, and the ‘needed’/‘dispensable’ division really bothered me. Who decides, and why along those particular lines? And yes, her decision at the end took my breath away.
The winter of 2020-21 is the harshest the modern world has ever seen, with the whole planet plunged into something resembling an ice age. Dylan heads north from his former family home (a small art-house cinema, now gone bankrupt) in London, with the ashes of his recently-deceased mother and grandmother, to the Scottish Highlands, to find a caravan his mother left him, the existence of which he only discovered after her death. It’s not clear to Dylan why his mother should have bought him a caravan in this particular place, somewhere his family had no connections, but it gradually dawns on him that this is his way of telling him their family secrets, and over the course of this freezing winter, as temperatures get lower and lower, the pieces slowly fall into place.
Dylan becomes close to spirited, independent Constance, a survivalist who lives in the next caravan, and her 12-year old daughter Stella. Constance is something of an outcast in the local community, having had 2 lovers simultaneously for years, and Stella too is an outcast, as she is trans. I loved the character of Stella - she walks off the page - but I’m not sure that she needed to be trans. As Constance’s daughter she would have been an outcast anyway, and that would have been enough for the story, to my mind. I can’t help thinking that the trans element brought in another huge subject to a story which already deals with a couple of major issues (climate change, and another I won’t mention so as not to spoil the family secret); there was a bit too much going on, and the trans thing smacked a bit of jumping on the bandwagon - but the novel doesn’t need it.
Jenni Fagan (a Granta Best Young British Novelist) has a voice which is all her own, fresh and unique, and which I admire greatly without it really working for me much of the time. Where it did work for me, though, was the descriptions of the weather, the extreme phenomena brought by this harsh winter, and the landscape, which drew me in in a way that the story itself, and the characters (other than the wonderful Stella) failed to. I have taken away some very vivid images which I expect to stay with me for some time.
A Death in the Family by Karl Ove Knausgaard, the first volume in My Struggle
Autumn by Ali Smith
Nunca Pasa Nada by José Ovejero
I saw so many books I want to read; I kept having to remind myself that it’s a library, not a second-hand bookshop, and that they’ll all be there another day.
What you said about the books being shelved by order of acquisition brings to my mind a dim memory of another library in which this was the case. I can't remember if I heard of it in real life or in fiction, but I remember somebody making bitter fun of an absurd system and complaining that it was impossible to find a book (of course the complaint was legit as this was some kind of academic library and not one run by volunteers, and I don't know if there was a catalogue in that case).
Translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett
I was all set to hate this book. The hype, for one. I’d picked it up in bookshops several times and put it down again, assuming it wouldn’t be my thing, and preferring to wait until I found a copy second-hand. When I came across it in the library last week I didn’t hesitate, but only because I wanted to give it a chance; I KNEW I wouldn’t like it, so I’d be able to tick the box and move on after a few chapters.
I nearly gave up before I started, when I flicked through and realised there are no chapters, just long, long chunks of prose, often pages at a time. I knew I would hate it.
So what a lovely surprise when I was hooked within pages. Even then, I assumed it wouldn’t last, but I went on a 2-day business trip taking this as my only book to force myself to give it a fair trial. Well, it got a fair trial, and I have never been less sociable, or less keen to explore new surroundings, whilst away for work. I couldn’t stop reading it. The tiny little details of Knausgaard’s life fascinated me. He adds layer upon layer of minute detail, leaving me with vivid impressions which I am sure will stay with me for a while.
Two things in particular impressed me. One, that he is a master at going off on a tangent and always, always coming back to what he was saying. A little like Dickens, really. A couple of times I laughed in delight when he picked up the original thread again; I had become so engrossed in the diversion each time that I’d forgotten it was a diversion at all. And two, the way he describes experiences and feelings from childhood and adolescence; the feelings he describes are usually universal, and I often found myself nodding in recognition as yet again he hit the nail exactly on the head. Interestingly, I have found that reading this novel has triggered memories of my own, and I’ve spent a happy few days reviewing long-forgotten scenes from my own life.
Needless to say, I will be reading the next book soon.
>83 labfs39: (downloads sample of Beartown right away) (Boxing books? Are you moving?)
I put a sample of this on to my tablet a couple of years ago, when, I seem to remember, several members of CR read this. I forgot all about it until the other day, when I read and was charmed by the sample.
Some time between the wars, Mrs Lotty Wilkins, a mousey London housewife sees an advert in the Times for a ‘small Medieval castle’ in Italy to rent for the month of April, and sets her heart on going (she ‘sees herself’ there). She persuaded another lady, whom she has never spoken to before, to join her, and they decide to advertise for two further lady companions to share the cost. And so the four ladies, each with her own worries, arrive at the house....and it works its magic on them.
Elizabeth von Arnim has a deliciously wicked way of putting things. I knew I wanted to read the whole book when on one of the first pages I read:
‘Mr Wilkins, a solicitor, encouraged thrift, except that branch of it that got into his food. He did not call that thrift, he called it bad housekeeping.’
In many ways this is a lovely, gentle novel, but the characters are grappling with some big issues, and the torment they are in makes them behave very selfishly...until they fall under the spell of Italy and the house. The plot reminded me of some of Oscar Wilde’s plays - fairly implausible, but all the better for it, and with things taking almost farcical twists and turns before everything is back in its rightful place.
I'm on a fence concerning My Struggle but I think I'll skip it, at least for the foreseeable future.
Enchanted April seems nice.
>87 valkyrdeath: I’m glad to have kind of made you change your mind (even if not enough to read it!)
>88 chlorine: yes, The Enchanted April was lovely, but I found it was hard to do justice to it in my comments without making it sound a bit silly, which it isn’t at all.
Yes, I am moving, but when the first thing the realtor said was "box at least half your books," I started second-guessing myself! Where will I find a place that will accommodate so many bookshelves??
I was away skiing last week with the family, so didn’t have much reading time, and what little I did have I had to grab where I could, a few minutes here and there. That wouldn’t matter for some books, but I think this one suffered from being read like that, and I feel that’s why I didn’t enjoy it more. I enjoyed some parts of it (the gloriously realistic scene in the post office, and the wonderful dialogue there, and indeed elsewhere, and the characters; I keep thinking about them), but as a whole it didn’t quite work for me. I think it would have benefitted from being read in a couple of sittings, which is what I will make sure I do with Winter.
Despite being left a little bit cold by it, it’s a book I’m still thinking about.
Your next place not only has to have walls for bookshelves, but also for pictures. It's a difficult trade off.
Very glad to have finished this one, though I’m not sure why I stuck with it. In fact, I decided at 200 pages in (out of 300 - unusual for me, as if i’m going to abandon a book I tend to do it early on) that I didn’t much care what happened to the characters, and as it was due back to the library I decided to return it rather than renew. But it got a reprieve, as the library was closed when I got there, which I took as a sign that I should finish it. Perhaps I should just have taken it as a sign that i need to make a note of the library’s opening hours.
It started well enough, with Olivia, a recent immigrant to Spain from Ecuador, who works as a nanny/cleaning lady for a Spanish family, Nico, Carmela and their little daughter. We soon learn that Olivia is in a mess, with her debt to the gang that trafficked her increasing by the day, the middleman she deals with making increasing demands on her, and her mother, seriously ill in hospital in Ecuador, where her the treatment she needs costs more than Olivia can send. Real potential for a good, topical story, I thought, but unfortunately it went off in some odd directions - or maybe I just wanted a story which wasn’t the one Ovejero wanted to tell. I wanted Olivia’s story, whereas in fact this novel is in part about Olivia, in part about Nico, in part about Carmela (did she have to be an insatiable seeker of extra-marital sexual pleasure, in an open marriage, an arrangement which she alone benefits from? (She comes across more as a certain type of man’s fantasy wife than a real woman)), and in part about a genius (and very odd) student of Nico’s, Claudio (I really don’t know what he added). There was potentially so much material about Olivia and her situation, but instead of exploiting it, Ovejero gives at least as much airtime to these other, less interesting, characters, whom I didn’t find particularly credible. And while I’m on credible (or not), the ending...! It came out of the blue, unexplained, and left me unsatisfied. All in all, a very frustrating read.
I’d been wanting to read some José Ovejero for a while, because he has strong links with Brussels, and because many of my colleagues rate him. I didn’t enjoy this one, but at some point I will give him another chance with Las vidas ajenas, which was awarded Spain’s Primavera prize in 2005.
Ha! I love it. I find it hard to give up on a book too, but found it easier when I made a tag for "bookmark stuck." I leave the bookmark in the book as a visual reminder that someday, when I have nothing else to read, I can pick up where I left off. It is rubbish, of course, but it makes me feel better.
Four is such a great age. My granddaughter is four , and we have the best times.
>102 avaland: I don’t know what you mean; I held out for a couple of weeks! Seriously, though, I’ve decided to adopt a different approach this year, in the hope that it will keep me reading more, and with more enjoyment and enthusiasm, than I have in the last couple of years. So rather than trying to read off my TRB pile, or read xyz because it’s time I got around to it, I’m just going to go tumbling down the rabbit holes that CR opens up, and see where they lead me. This is how I used to read, and I don’t really know why I changed my habits.
I love your reading plan. :) I'm sure it will provide many surprises.
Debut novel by this Vietnamese American professor, which won the Pulitzer Prize, although that had passed me by; I just saw it on the new acquisitions shelf at the library and thought t was worth a look.
And it was (worth a look). Published to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon, that’s what it opens with, narrated by a narrator whose name we never learn, a North Vietnamese (communist) mole in the South Vietnamese army, where he is right-hand man to ‘the General’. As Saigon falls, the narrator accompanies the General and the chosen few on one of the last flights out. Their destination is the USA, where the narrator becomes embedded in the Vietnamese community, passing coded messages back to his handler in Vietnam, whilst continuing to make himself invaluable to the General.
There are some interesting themes here, some dealt with more successfully than others. The narrator is Eurasian, so not seen as ‘one of us’ by either the Vietnamese or the Americans (he is assumed to be part American, rather than part European), and I enjoyed the treatment of identity, to what extent we can shape our own, and to what extent we are the prisoners of what others assume. Of mixed race, the narrator is also a bastard, another reason why he doesn’t fully belong. ANd someone who doesn’t fully belong is perhaps the perfect spy, able to see both sides. Does the fact that he doesn’t belong, though, make the narrator cling more tenaciously to the few human links that he does have? In the end, this is his downfall.
The author also deals with colonisation, and with the role of the Americans in the Vietnam war - how could he not, in a novel like this? I did feel at times that this was a bit much, too much for this novel, especially as it all had to come from the narrator. On occasion it was hard to credit this young, fairly junior officer with the sophisticated, articulate theories he spouts at will. Perhaps because of this, I found the novel quite uneven, with parts of it almost reading themselves, whilst others I skimmed over.
Translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett
In the late 1970s Norway was shaken by a month-long series of arson attacks in a rural area in the south of the country, the author’s home region. Heivoll takes these real events as the starting point for his novel/investigation/memoir, in which what is fact and what is fiction is never clear. As Heivoll was a new-born baby at the time of the fires, he naturally remembers nothing about them; he reconstructs the story on the basis of conversations with those who do remember (which also become conversations about Heivoll’s late father, who, like all the local men, had helped fight the fires). The identity of the perpetrator is revealed early on, because this isn’t a thriller or a whodunnit; it’s a story about a close-knit rural community and how its people struggled to deal with the extraordinary events that befell them.
Despite the subject matter, this is a quiet book, and one which really grew on me. It didn’t draw me in to quite the extent that Across the China Sea did, but from about halfway through I was hooked. I was bothered at first by the fact/fiction distinction at first, and by how the narrator (he’s a writer called Gaute Heivoll, who may or may not be the author) recounted things that he couldn’t possibly have known in such detail, but I came to accept it as a man trying to make sense of something that had happened long ago, but which had left its mark on his community.
> 117 Yes, very different - although after a while I had the feeling that it was about the same place as the small community in Across the China Sea. I could imagine the characters knowing each other. I very nearly gave up on it, but something kept me at it...and then suddenly I couldn't wait to be able to pick it up again.
Before I Go to Sleep by S. J. Watson
Years before the time in which the novel is set, the narrator, lost her memory in an accident. However, rather than lose it completely, she has a rare condition in which her memory is erased every night as she sleeps. Thus, every morning she wakes up believing she is in her 20s, and her considerably older body comes as a shock. Every morning she wonders who the man next to her is, and every day he patiently tells her her story, which she then forgets again overnight. The narrator, whose name I forget, is seeing a doctor, who calls her each day to prompt her to read the diary he encourages her to write (he tells her where to find it), in the hope that this will help her remember more. Each day, she is reminded by the diary that she mustn't tell Ben, her husband, about the doctor; there are also notes in the diary suggesting that Ben is not to be trusted. It's soon clear that all is not what it seems...but in what way? Watson creates and maintains great suspense and tension, but I found the novel quite disappointing (all the more so as it was warmly recommended by someone whose tastes often coincide with mine). I found it extremely repetitive, and though I'm aware that this is a harsh criticism to level at a book about someone whose life is necessarily repetitive, I stand by it, as it wasn't just the story, but even the language that kept repeating itself - every time the narrator had a realisation about something it was 'and then it hit me'...'it was then that it hit me'...'suddenly the truth hit me', etc etc, which irritated me. I also felt manipulated as a reader, somehow - I felt that the author was keeping information from me so as to make the dénouement more spectacular. Meh. Not very satisfying.
Edited to add that I just looked up S.J.Watson to check nationality, and am surprised to discover that he's a man. I never doubted that the author was female. That may explain some of my dissatisfaction, as the (female) narrator's voice just didn't quite ring true, too breathy, too gushing.
Ah, what a joy this was, Atwood's retelling of The Tempest, set in a men's prison where they are staging it as part of their literacy programme, which is run by Felix, a former festival director-turned-hermit who has spent 12 years waiting for his opportunity to take his revenge on the two men who ousted him from the festival. It's utterly improbable, which could have been a problem in the hands of a lesser writer, but Atwood and her riotous imagination make it all completely plausible. It's also very, very clever (plays within plays within plays), but in an understated Atwoodian way. Atwood has long been a favourite of mine; she is one of those writers I love to read just for the sense of how much she seems to enjoy writing - the joy comes across in what she writes, even in scenes that are not in themselves joyful. I didn't see the ending coming, but it was perfect and made me cry.
>123 rachbxl: What a ringing endorsement! Were you familiar with The Tempest beforehand, and do you think it matters if you're not? To my shame at not having read much Dickens, I can add that of not being well up on Shakespeare. I've probably seen quite a few over the years, but only the ones we dissected at school seem to stick in my mind properly! However, I do love Margaret Atwood...
I would say that I didn't really know The Tempest, although I must have picked up the basics at some point, as it seems more familiar than it should. I don't think you need any particular knowledge of the original play to enjoy the novel...though it will probably make you want to go and read it afterwards! It certainly has done that to me, although I don't know when I'll get to it.
Thanks to LT, this novel was on my wishlist, particularly as I was interested in reading more about slavery after reading Homegoing earlier this year, so when I saw it in the library I grabbed it. The two libraries I use at work are currently providing me with a good supply of books I really want to read (they jump off the shelves at the moment; I don't even have to track things down - I feel like a child in a sweet shop).
There really was an 'underground railroad', which was not a railroad at all, but a complex system of routes and safehouses and 'stations', run by brave men and women who risked their lives to help slaves escape and flee to more enlightened states in the north, or to Canada. In Colson Whitehead's reimagining of it, it is a real underground railway; escaping slaves are smuggled by volunteers to a 'station', usually hidden beneath a house, and there, having been fed and watered, they must await the next 'train'. These real trains, some old and rickety, others more comfortable, are driven by other volunteers, and are few and far between, running only when it is safe for them to do so. The stations and even whole branches of the line are apt to close down without warning.
Unlike Homegoing, in which the narrative passes from generation to generation, spanning a couple of centuries, the focus here is much more narrow. Cora was born into slavery, like her mother before her (her grandmother was captured from her native village in Africa). She is persuaded to attempt an escape via the underground railroad by Caesar, recently arrived on the plantation where she has spent her whole life. I am revealing nothing if I say that they succeed in making it to apparent freedom in South Carolina, but that is just the start of Cora's journey, especially when appearances turn out to be very deceptive. Whitehead does a good job of portraying the evil of slavery, the cruelty, the horror, but he also makes clear just how hard it was for slaves to escape, for even if they made it away from their local area, they were for ever at risk of being caught and returned to their 'owners' by mercenary slave catchers (even freed slaves who were down on their luck might betray them for money); I see the novel as a kind of dance between Cora and one particular slave catcher, Ridgeway, who, having failed to catch Cora's mother when she escaped years earlier, abandoning her daughter, is determined to get the daughter, and pursues her across states and over the years.
I found this to be an excellent companion to Homegoing, and I'm glad I read them close together, but it is also a wonderful novel in its own right. I was caught up in it completely, and since finishing it several days ago I have often found myself thinking about it.
Whew...only two book bullets from you.
Touchstone not working, but this is the French-language original of the novel available in the US as The Perfect Nanny, and in the UK as Lullaby
I wouldn’t have read this now were it not for Nickelini’s recent review, which reminded me that when I originally heard of this book (when it won France’s Prix Goncourt in 2016), I had put it on a mental wishlist somewhere, and then I had forgotten all about it. So thank you Joyce, not just for reminding me, but for making me want to read it NOW.
This is an unusual mystery, in that in the first sentence Slimani gives the plot away - the nanny killed the children. What she doesn’t tell us is why, and Slimani takes 200 deliciously suspenseful pages to answer that question. She takes us back through the family’s decision to hire a nanny so Myriam, the mother, could go back to work as a lawyer, and we see Myriam and her husband, Paul, effectively pinching themselves, unable to believe their luck at finding Louise, the perfect nanny. Because that’s what Louise is; she takes excellent care of the children, she cooks, she cleans, and generally makes herself indispensable, to such an extent that they take her on holiday with them. It’s the dissonance between this harmony and what we know happened next that makes the story so compelling - that, and Slimani’s elegant, pared-back style, which lends itself perfectly to telling a tale like this. No drama, no histrionics, just the facts (which is what makes the chicken carcass scene Nickelini referred to so effective).
Moroccan-born Slimani arrived in France at the age of 18, and attended one of the country’s top universities before starting work as a journalist - not your stereotypical Moroccan immigrant, then. In fact, your stereotypical female Moroccan immigrant could easily be a nanny for a couple of well-heeled (white) French professionals, but Slimani turns it on its head, and why not? Myriam herself, a successful lawyer, is of Moroccan origin, whilst Louise is white and French.
Not an easy read, given that I entrust my child to a babysitter for several hours a day, but an exhilarating one. I am really glad to have discovered Slimani; she hasn’t written much (yet), but I wil be tracking down her work to date.
All the other books you read seem excellent.
>139 chlorine: yes, that bugged me too. In the diary I heard the author, not the character.
Upstairs at the Party by Linda Grant
Rebeki’s review of this caught my eye a couple of weeks ago, so when I stumbled across the book in the library shortly afterwards, I picked it up. I’ve read several of Linda Grant’s other books, and I’ve enjoyed them all to varying degrees. Some I have thought fantastic (When I Lived in Modern Times springs to mind), others less outstanding, but I find Grant to be a reliably good read. Upstairs at the Party, for me, falls into the ‘less outstanding’ category, mainly because it didn’t really make me feel personally involved, but there is a lot to like and admire here. In a nutshell, the 50-something narrator, Adele, looks back on her university years and tries to make sense of a shocking event (which happened upstairs, while they were at the party downstairs) which has held her and her university friends in its thrall ever since, whether they have been aware of it or not. I always imagine Grant to be the kind of writer that sits on buses with a notebook, noting down odd snippets that she hears, because her characters say the most wonderful things, wonderful because they ring so true.
>146 VivienneR: Enjoy Little Red Chairs! Yes, I’ve noticed our similar tastes, too.
>147 BLBera: I’ve just discovered that Linda Grant has written more than I realised, so I’m going to be on the lookout for the ones I haven’t read.
Jane Harper’s Aaron Falk novels were on my radar thanks to Club Read, but I don’t know when I would have got to them, were it not for an Australian friend passing on the second, Force of Nature, just the other day. She said it could be read as a stand-alone, but it was too good an opportunity to pass up, so I immediately bought The Dry. It’s a thriller-cum-police procedural set in the dusty little town of Kiewarra, which, like the rest of the region, is on its knees after 2 years without rain (hence the title). Agent Aaron Falk is back in his boyhood town from Melbourne for the funeral of his childhood best friend, his wife and child; the police have no evidence, but everything points to the friend having murdered his wife and child before killing himself.
I really enjoyed this, a gripping story, well-written, with lots of likeable characters, as well as its share of distinctly less likeable ones, all realistic. The drought is almost a character in its own right, an omni-present one; I could almost feel the hot dust in my throat. I could also see the shimmering landscape, which Harper describes every bit as well, as realistically, as she does the characters (I was interested to see just now that she is originally from the UK- Manchester, just near where I am from - but has spent much of her life in Australia; this novel could be her love-song to her adopted country and its people).
I cannot wait to move on to the next one.
Sarah Thornhill by Kate Grenville
This is a loose sequel to The Secret River, in that Sarah Thornhill is the child of William and Sal, but it can easily be read alone. It’s definitely a return to The Secret River territory, though, and Grenville manages to transport the reader there just as effectively this time round. This is a world I love reading about.
Sarah’s mother Sal having died, William, or Pa, has remarried, and his second wife, Ma, devotes herself to erasing his (convict) past and gentrifying him. Meanwhile, Sarah gradually falls in love with her brother Will’s best friend Jack, a local boy born to a white father and a native mother...to her family’s disgust.
I was caught up in and convinced by this novel until the last hundred pages or so. Sarah is a feisty, intelligent young woman, but completely uneducated and illiterate, and surely the product of her environment and upbringing just because she hasn’t been equipped with the skills needed to question things. So I found her attitude to her father’s past treatment of the ‘blacks’, which she learns about towards the end of the novel, quite surprising; where has she learned to condemn that behaviour? Similarly, the novel ends with her making a voyage, which provides the novel with a nice ending...but would she really have done that?
Hung up trying to write a review of Small Country because it was so good and the words just aren't coming. I'd put it on par with the Ondatjee, though.
The friend who passed this on said it was good, but not as good as The Dry; I disagree. The setting is different, but equally quintessentially Australian, and the sense of place is just as strong - a remote range of mountains several hours from Melbourne, where of the 5 women who set out into the bush on a corporate team-building weekend, only 4 return. The one who disappears is the whistle-blower in Agent Aaron Falk’s investigation into the firm the women work for, part of his latest money laundering case, and she was due to hand over a crucial set of incriminating documents on her return to Melbourne.
Once again, the pace never lets up (the pages turn themselves), without it ever feeling forced. As in the previous novel, the cast is quite large, and the characters are convincing. Harper cleverly plants seeds of doubt in the reader’s mind about any number of them, a technique I thought I was ready for after The Dry - but despite being on the lookout this time, I still didn’t see the ending coming.
Hugely enjoyable. I can’t wait to read whatever Harper writes next.
The Wire in the Blood
This turns out to be the second book in the Tony Hill and Carol Jordan series, Tony Hill being a Home Office psychologist whose thing is criminal profiling (not something your average police force had much time for, back in 1997), and Carol Jordan, a detective. I’m left with a morbid curiosity about what happened in the first book, as it’s often referred to (whatever it was, it was bad), but I didn’t feel like not knowing put me at a disadvantage for the second.
As ever with McDermid, this is a very well-written, gripping story, with convincing characters. This one was so gory in parts that I nearly put it down, and it’s a credit to McDermid’s writing that I didn’t. She tells such a good story, and that’s what I needed. She must research her books minutely, but her research serves the story, rather than getting in the way of it.
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
Scarred by her childhood with a cruel mother, and her adolescence in care, and suffering the fallout from a traumatic event she has locked away in her brain and refuses to acknowledge, Eleanor Oliphant at 30 is the laughing-stock of the small office where she works. She has no friends - her only human contact outside the office is with the man in the corner shop where she buys the vodka that gets her through the weekend, and a phone call from her still-cruel mother, now, it seems, in prison, every Wednesday evening. Her life is ruled by routine and habit - she always wears the same clothes (she has more than one of each item; cleanliness is very important to her), eats exactly the same thing each evening. She doesn’t see the need for nice things; she doesn’t know that she could treat herself (there is nobody else to do it).
Eleanor has no idea how to interact with people, so comes across as odd, weird, ‘a bit of a nutter’. Gail Honeyman manages to cast Eleanor as a truly sympathetic narrator, who relates her actions (and the reactions of those around her) in a deadpan, matter-of-fact way, to great comic effect. This is a very funny book, but also a touching one. Eleanor is desperately lonely, and mentally ill, and Honeyman treats her with great compassion.
The book tells how Eleanor’s life begins to change, thanks to the kindness of a new colleague, Raymond. I’m not sure that the plot stands up to much scrutiny in some parts, but I can overlook that. This was a fun book to read, but at the same time a thought-provoking one, and at times one that made me uncomfortable, whilst at other times warming my heart. I wouldn’t give it the 4 or even 5 stars many on LT have given it, but I really enjoyed it, and I think it’s an excellent debut novel.
My library has a long waiting list for the Harper books, but I reserved The Dry; it sounds like one I might enjoy.
Earlier this year I was impressed by Jenni Fagan’s second novel, The Sunlight Pilgrims, so I was pleased to find her first novel, The Panopticon, in the library. It’s been several weeks since I finished it, but my impressions of it are still very vivid (The Sunlight Pilgrims has stuck with me too; these aren’t necessarily the books I’ve enjoyed most this year, but Fagan writes in a way which conjures up strong visual images, which linger).
15-year old Anaïs has spent her life in care (she has never met anyone she was related to), and has moved dozens of times, from one foster family to another, followed by a happy spell when she was officially adopted by a prostitute (really?). After her adopted mother’s sudden death, she moved again from one children’s home to another. Now, as the life of a police officer she is alleged to have assaulted hangs in the balance (Anaïs has no recollection of what happened, as she was high), she is moved to The Panopticon, another children’s home, so-called because of the watchtower, designed to give staff a full view of the residents at all times.
Like Anaïs, Jenni Fagan grew up in the Scottish care system. She insists in interviews that Anaïs’s story is not hers, but what is for sure is that she has experience of the care system which most of us don’t, and The Panopticon gives a fascinating insight into it (though I was pleased to walk away afterwards). Anaïs is one of the most likeable narrators I have encountered for a long time, for all her encounters with the police (this is just the latest), truancy and drug abuse. She is strong and feisty, with a natural sense of right and wrong (just one which doesn’t coincide entirely with the police version), of fairness, of morality. She also has a tendency to break into philosophical discourse in a way which is quite unrealistic for a 15-year old, let alone one who rarely goes to school and is permanently high, but this was Fagan’s first novel, and if I hadn’t already read her second, I would want to read it now.
The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain
Gustav and Anton meet as small boys, when Gustav is asked to help Anton, the new boy in his class in a small town in Switzerland, not long after WW2. Gustav lives in poverty with his embittered anti-Semitic mother, whilst Anton is the child of a wealthy Jewish banker, just arrived in Switzerland with his family. The two boys strike up a friendship, encouraged by Anton’s parents, discouraged by Gustav’s mother, and The Gustav Sonata is the story of that friendship over the next 50 years, but it’s also a story about human nature, about love in different forms, about growing old, and about redemption. Gentle, understated, powerful and beautiful - I loved it.
>167 NanaCC: Which Tremain have you got, Colleen? I’ve read a few over the years, although it had been ages since the last one, and I’m pretty sure I enjoyed them all.
>168 labfs39: Thanks, Lisa! I don’t think I read as interesting books as I used to (I’m just glad to be reading at all, and for the most part enjoying what I read), so that’s good to hear. I always like seeing what you’ve been reading too (and in fact I was just thinking about you this morning, in connection with the thought that I really want to read some Backman one of these days...)
My Naughty Little Sister by Dorothy Edwards
My Naughty Little Sister’s Friends by Dorothy Edwards
>174 BLBera: I keep thinking about The Gustav Sonata. Although I already liked Tremaine, I hadn’t heard of it, and the cover blurb didn’t make it sound all that promising, but what a treat it was. On a totally different note, I look forward to seeing what you make of Jenni Fagan.
When my Naughty Littlle Sister Was Good by Dorothy Edwards
We are on a roll with My Naughty Little Sister, and my daughter is as convinced as countless children have been before her (me included) that the naughty little sister is someone she knows (my younger sister, her aunty). I’m loving re-reading the stories, but they are quite dated; interesting that this doesn’t seem to bother my daughter at all.
Yesterday we re-joined the wonderful volunteer-run English-language Children’s Library in Brussels (we were members when she was tiny, but back then books had to be in the house for quite a while, while she became familiar with them as objects, before she would want them reading to her, and the 2-week borrowing period wasn’t long enough). It’s one small room, packed with impeccably-organised books from floor to ceiling - a little treasure trove of children’s books.
A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
I was looking forward to this one, so I was disappointed not to like it more. I don’t think it’s a bad book; it just didn’t work for me. It’s about a more-or-less loosely connected group of people, who start out bright-eyed and optimistic, but the goon squad (age) gets them in the end, as it gets us all (is that such a bad thing, though?) I like the premise, but the characters are key in this novel, I think, and unfortunately none of them clicked with me.
There’s one of the later chapters, quite a long one, which is written in the form of a PowerPoint-type presentation, made by the young daughter of two of the main characters, about her family life. When it started I groaned, but I stuck with it...and it really worked.
So, not a great experience, but it hasn’t put me off reading more of Egan’s work.
This is a James Bond novel, published in 2008, the 100th anniversary of the birth of Ian Fleming, the creator of Bond. When I found it on my recently-resurrected Kindle, I wasn’t aware that it was a Bond novel, so I found the first few pages quite confusing. I assume that back when I bought it, I knew it was Bond, and decided to try it because it was by Sebastian Faulks, several of whose books I have enjoyed in the past.
Unfortunately, I didn’t like the Faulks-Bond combination; it just didn’t work for me. It felt like Faulks was hampered by having to write a Bond story, which ended up being very similar to any other Bond story. I was really bothered by the sexism, which I can turn a blind eye to in a book written decades ago, but not in 2008! To be fair, there is a huge twist at the end which does make the gender issue look rather different, but for me the damage was already done.
More Naughty Little Sister Stories by Dorothy Edwards
My Naughty Little Sister and Bad Harry
Ballerina Dreams by Michaela and Elaine DePrince
The true story of ballerina Michaela DePrince, and how she came across a picture of a ballerina in a magazine at her orphanage in war-torn Sierra Leone, and decided she wanted to dance. Soon after she was adopted by an American family (her adoptive mother is the co-author of the book), who sent her to ballet lessons. She is now a soloist with the Dutch National Ballet. My daughter loves this book, which we have read several times already. I am delighted with what she appears to have taken away from it; now, whenever she’s struggling with something, she says, ‘I’m like the dancer, Mummy. I will not give up’. (I googled DePrince to find out more about her - what an amazing young woman).
Pugly Bakes a Cake by Pamela Butchart
On a completely different note from Ballerina Dreams, this is a kind of children’s book that didn’t exist when I was little - irreverent, a little bit subversive, and lots of fun to read aloud.
When I finally got round to reading the Easter edition of my university’s alumni newsletter, there was a section where illustrious alumni (all women, for some reason) gave recommendations for summer reading. I just skimmed through at first, not expecting to find more than a title or two that interested me - the problem with this kind of feature is that people are tempted to recommend what they think looks good, rather than what they actually loved. Not this time, though, and I came away with an even-more-bulging wishlist. The Optimist’s Daughter is the first from this feature that I’ve read. The person who recommended it confessed that she should have read it when she was actually at university, and that once she read it recently she kicked herself for not having bothered sooner, which is kind of how I feel.
Eudora Welty has long been one of those writers that lurks on the edge of my conscious mind, making me feel vaguely guilty that for never having read them, and, what’s more, for not being entirely sure what they wrote or quite when. I’m so glad this recommendation of The Optimist’s Daughter spoke to me, because it was a revelation. I was blown away by it, and read it in two sittings.
In a nutshell, at the time of her father’s death, Laurel, herself a war widow, looks back on her life and that of her parents. Her mother is long dead, and her father had recently married again; his new wife couldn’t be more different to Laurel’s mother. The novel is only short, but the characters are vivid, even just those with walk-on parts, and so too are the settings - mainly the small town in Mississippi where Laurel grew up, and her mother’s home in the mountains of West Virginia. And all recounted in a voice which made me think of Joyce Carol Oates, which I found interesting as until now I’d never read anything at all like JCO.
The Night Watch by Sarah Waters
I have more or less avoided Sarah Waters until now, in part because several of her novels are historical fiction (not my favourite genre), but also because of the hype around the lesbianism. My loss, it turns out. I only had this one because I found it on a swap shelf (i.e. it cost me nothing), and it had been sitting on my TBR shelves for a while. Thank goodness something made me pick it up; it turned out to be one of those wonderful books I lost myself in completely.
The Night Watch is set in London during the Second World War, and it focuses on a small group of characters who don’t all know each other, but who are connected. We first meet them in 1947 (I think; I don’t have the book in front of me); their stories drew me right in, and I was keen to know what happened to them next...but I never found out, because the narrative moves backwards, not forwards, each section taking us further back in time, ending with the early stages of the war. In other words, we find out how the characters got to be where they are in 1947, but not what happens next. This might have been frustrating, but it wasn’t, because the novel is carried not by its plot but by its fabulously lifelike characters; Waters is exceptionally insightful, and her characters are among the most likeable I’ve come across for a long while, likeable in a warts-and-all way. The dialogue is a joy to read.
Fingers crossed that the libraries I use have more Waters!
Petit Pays is the first novel by this poet, rapper and singer-songwriter, who, like Gabriel, his young narrator, is half-French, half-Rwandan, Burundi-born.
Gaby’s idyllic childhood comes to an abrupt end when his mother leaves, coinciding with the outbreak of civil war in Burundi. At home and outside of it, life is transformed; what was safe can no longer be relied on, things change, alliances shift. The genocide in neighbouring Rwanda follows months later.
I very much enjoyed reading this coming-of-age story. The evocation of the lost childhood is very well done, not sentimental, actually quite sparing, but effective. The bigger events start off in the background (Gaby is a young boy, after all, more concerned with raiding the neighbour’s garden for mangoes with his friends (they then sell the mangoes to the same neighbour) than with this thing that is of such concern to the adults), but as time goes on, they take centre-stage, leaving no room for anything else.
As I say, I enjoyed this novel, but it took me ages (weeks) to read, slim as it is. I experienced the opposite of not being able to put it down; I couldn’t pick it up again, not because I didn’t rate it, but because I knew it couldn’t end well. Gaby is such an engaging character; I wanted to leave him in his innocence with his friends and their mangoes. Clear as it was that it wouldn’t end well, I was nevertheless profoundly shocked by the way it did end. It was worse than I expected, devastating, in fact, and after I had finished it I sat and stared at the wall, shaking. It wasn’t what I wanted for Gabriel, but ultimately this isn’t a cosy little story about growing up in a gone-for-ever society; it’s a novel about countries and people and war and what it does to us.
I think it was thanks to Ridgewaygirl that Belinda Bauer made her way on to my wishlist, and this novel was the first of hers that I found.
When their car breaks down on the motorway on a hot summer’s day, three children are left in the car by their pregnant mother, who tells them she will be back as soon as she has phoned for help (the novel is set before the universalisation of mobile phones). Several hours later, they realise she isn’t coming back, and Jack, the eldest, takes charge. Their mother’s body is found soon after.
Some time later, their father walks out on them, and Jack, barely a teenager, is in charge again. He supports his two sisters by burgling local houses, stealing healthy food to feed them, clothes, and books for his book-loving younger sister. Longing for the family life’s he once knew, he sleeps in the beds of the family homes he burgles, earning himself the nickname ‘Goldilocks’ in the press. When DCI John Marvel, recently arrived in disgrace from London, gets involved, an investigation into the Goldilocks burglaries becomes an investigation into Jack’s mother’s murder, never solved.
This is a very readable thriller, one in which the pace doesn’t let up through the various twists and turns. My issue with it is that there are several details which I didn’t find credible. For example, three children living alone in a terraced house (i.e. with neighbours close by) for several years? These same three children not going to school for several years? I won’t list them, but there are other instances of things which are crucial to the plot not being very plausible. That said, though, this was a quick, enjoyable read, and just what I needed after WW2 and the Rwandan genocide, and these flaws won’t stop me seeking out more by Belinda Bauer.
>201 baswood: Thanks, Barry. I read it in French too, and it took me ages to read, though not particularly because of the difficulty of the language. I look forward to seeing what you make of it.
Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie
I am a big fan of Kamila Shamsie, so if I say that I didn’t enjoy Home Fire as much as I’ve enjoyed other books of hers, it’s all relative. With her other books I’ve admired the way she tells very personal, intimate stories, even when the events that provide the backdrop are huge (Burnt Shadows, for example, is a novel about people affected by the H-bomb on Nagasaki; it’s not a novel about the H-bomb on Nagasaki). This time, though, I couldn’t help feeling that Home Fire tells a story Shamsie wanted to tell, a story about the radicalisation and recruitment of foreign fighters and their journey to and time in the ISIS caliphate, and what happens if they want to leave, and the characters serve that story. It’s a great story, and one I enjoyed reading, but I missed the very real characters; I couldn’t really get close to these characters, didn’t feel that I knew them. I wonder if I found it less effective because the other Shamsie novels that I have read are set in the past, whereas Home Fire is topical, so the reader doesn’t have any distance from it.
I'm so far behind...Snap sounds fun, but Petit Pays...wow, quite a response. The Optimists Daughter does sound terrific (and I have same guilty ignorance of Eudora Welty)
Gentle, slow-moving account of the voyage made by the narrator, Michael, when he emigrated, age 12, from Ceylon to the UK. Several of the reviews on LT complain that it’s boring, nothing happens, but I liked it. Alone on board, but for a distant cousin, Emily, and an older lady known to his family who is supposed to be keeping an eye on him from her first class comfort, Michael makes friends with two other unaccompanied boys; the three of them are assigned to the ‘cat’s table’ for their meals, the table for odds and ends, furthest from the captain’s table (and peopled by interesting characters). The boys have the run of the ship, and they see and hear the adults do and say things about which their childish minds leap to conclusions, and which in many cases only become clear to them years later; the journey is an intoxicating time of vivid experiences which will shape their whole lives, and the narrative reaches backwards, to Michael’s childhood in Ceylon, and forwards, to his adult life in London and elsewhere, knitting it all together.
I have been a book or two behind with my reading log for several weeks, despite my best efforts to keep up. As soon as I get my thoughts on one book (which I finished at least a week earlier) down, I finish another, and I’m behind again. Sure enough, that’s about to happen again, as this evening I should finish Stay with Me by Ayobami Adebayo.
The Little Stranger wasn’t the next book by Waters that I was planning to read, but it was the next that I got my hands on, so I read it. In the past I’ve had a bit of a thing about NOT going on straight on to read something else by an author I’ve just discovered (to stop books merging into one in my head), but all too often I’ve just ended up forgetting all about the author in question and not finding my way back to them for several years, so I’ve abandoned that strategy.
The Little Stranger is a glorious gothic horror story, a ghost story set in the dilapidated Hundreds Hall, shortly after the Second World War. The male narrator is a local doctor who befriends the family at the Hall, who, far from living the comfortable life enjoyed by their ancestors, have been plunged into genteel poverty. On top of that, the grown-up son has never been the same since his experiences in the war. And as if that weren’t enough, there are some very strange goings on at the Hall...
At first I was disappointed. I wasn’t drawn immediately as I had been with The Night Watch. However, before I knew it I was completely wrapped up in this wonderful novel, and I couldn’t wait to get back to it whenever I had to put it down.
Stay with Me by Ayobami Adebayo Nigeria
My Struggle: Book 2: A Man in Love by Karl Ove Knausgard translated from the Norwegian
When Time Runs Out by Elina Hirvonen translated from the Finnish
Hot Milk by Deborah Levy UK
I hope to pop back and get down some thoughts about them before too long.
Over the years I’ve been on a (very) part-time search for light reads from Africa, just out of curiosity. At first, I thought Stay with Me might fit the bill, as it opens in such a chatty, engaging way, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. It is actually quite an easy read, but at the same time it’s a harsh critique of the inequalities between men and women in Nigeria (a man having more than one wife is normal; a married woman who has an affair is a pariah). I didn’t love the book, but I certainly don’t begrudge the time I spent reading it.
Translated from the Norwegian by Dan Bartlett
Having enjoyed Book 1 so much, I was very much looking forward to this, but the first time I took it out of the library I just couldn’t get into it. It was clearly just not the right time, because on my second attempt I couldn’t put it down. Once again, I was amazed by Knausgård’s ability to make the minute details of someone else’s life utterly fascinating (and more than that, I think; he’s telling his own story and that of those around him, but it’s the story of every one of us), and by the way he picks up the narrative thread seamlessly after deviation after deviation, one of them a couple of hundred pages long.
I particularly enjoyed the (lengthy! lengthy!) account of how he finally got together with his second wife ; they both come across as real human beings. And I was bowled over by the account of the birth of their first child; I find it incredible that a man could write like that about childbirth. He described my experience during the birth of my child as if he were me.
Translated from the Finnish
Several years ago I read Hirvonen’s earlier novel When I Forgot, and whilst I have no recollection of it, I do recall that I enjoyed it. This one, less so. The fractured family of a young man who shoots several people in a terrorist attack examine what drove them away from each other, and their respective relationships with each other. Nicely written, but it just didn’t grab me.
Hot Milk by Deborah Levy
As with the last book, I had previously read Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home, and enjoyed it, and as with the last book, this was a disappointment. A young woman accompanies her difficult mother to Spain, where she (the mother) is to be treated in a clinic run by a man who is either a genius or a fraudulent quack. The mother claims not to be able to walk (but she sometimes forgets). The cover blurb is full of the word ‘dreamlike’, and it is...but I found it completely surreal and unbelievable. I finished it, but only just.