Tuesday, 28 January 2014

A month in books - January

Tiny caravan bookshelf!
Yet another month has flown by already and we're now at the end of January! Perhaps appropriately, as we arrived yesterday in what should the the last of our Portuguese campsites, I have finally got a Portuguese book reviewed below. It is by Jose Saramago. We saw many of his books in the gorgeous Lello bookshop in Porto back in September and the one I finished today, albeit in English, is the last reviewed in this post. I still haven't finished the German language book though! I've photographed Bailey's tiny bookshelf to illustrate this post but, joy of joys, Camping Ria Formosa doesn't just have a book exchange, it has a whole library, complete with comfy chairs. I may be here some time!

The titles link to their respective Amazon.co.uk pages.

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes **** An interesting book which examines what we think we know about ourselves and our personal history and, in contrast,  how others see us in the context of the same events. I liked the story and the character developments, but unfortunately didn't see Veronica's behaviour as particularly outrageous in the first part of the book so consequently had to 'play catch up' later on in order to understand our protagonist's sense of victimisation. Barnes' does come across as self-consciously trying to be profound when he launches into his periodic philosophising. I didn't think that so much of this added value to the novel though, leading these passages to feel more like excessive padding by the end.

The Long Firm by Jake Arnott ***** I'm definitely becoming a Jake Arnott fan. Although The Long Firm has different subject matter to my previous read, House Of Rumour, the novel is just as well researched I think and I love the way he intertwines the lives of fictional characters with historical facts and personages. The presentation of 1960s London is spot on. At the time of reading, I wasn't totally convinced by the inclusion of the final chapter with its deep sociological arguments as it did not seem to fit with the style of rest of the book. After reflection though, I think it does work but that I was reading to fast to allow for the passing of so much time in Harry Stark's world!

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman ***** Much like Stardust, also by Gaiman, Ocean At The End Of The Lane is a traditional-style fairytale for adults and I thought it was absolutely wonderful. The story flows perfectly with vivid descriptions and larger than life characters. I loved the Hempstocks and could picture Ursula in great detail. I had already read other reviews so knew that this is more a novella than a full-length novel and I think it's just about right for the story being told. Fabulous escapism that I devoured in an evening.

The Shell House by Linda Newbery ** Good premise for a novel - modern teenagers coming of age juxtaposed against their First World War contemporaries. The novel mainly discusses themes of homosexuality and Christianity and, while it is to be applauded for doing so openly and seemingly without judgement, I though that this was also its weakest point because Newbury does go on, and on, and on. I found the discussions that her protagonists have to be generic with no real sense of genuine teenage speech. Mostly however, I dislike the abrupt ending. After having read all that philosophising, to be left without a conclusion is to be cheated!

Heartbreak Hotel by Deborah Moggach *** I enjoyed the start of Heartbreak Hotel. The vignettes of the various characters are well-observed and full of life. However, once we actually got to the hotel itself, I thought the storyline lost its sharpness. Some people find their true selves, some rebound into immediately fulfilling relationships, Londoners slot comfortably into Welsh village life as if they were born to it and family turns out to be the most important thing after all. A very light holiday read!

Long Time Coming by Robert Goddard **** Pleasantly surprised by this thriller which was much more convoluted and well-plotted than I expected. It jumps between two main time periods - the 1940s and the 1970s - and I was interested in the differences in detail between the two. Subsequent generations of several families become involved in the intrigues which does mean I needed to keep awareness of who was who, but overall an enjoyable read.

The Purple Land by W H Hudson **** This fictional account of the adventures of one Richard Lamb, fish-out of-water Englishman in 1860s Uruguay was originally published in 1885. I liked its overtly flowery language which immediately transported me back to the era and made Lamb's constant attitude of 'I'm English therefore ...' easier to stomach. The adventures themselves are entertaining and perilous for our hero, and also generally caused by his falling for the most recent woman to cross his path. The descriptions of Uruguay and her political situation at the time were interesting as I had no real knowledge of the country prior to reading this novel. I don't think I would search out any of Hudson's other novels, but would pick them up to read if I spotted one on a book exchange.

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides ***** Wow! I'm kicking myself for not reading this book ten years ago when it was originally published. It's fantastic. An epic tale of three generations of a Greek family who emigrated to America, Middlesex traces the family's story through a defective gene in their makeup. Eugenides writing is assured and detailed, as much a history lesson as a novel and with so many wonderful characters. All other books I read this year will have a long way to go to beat Middlesex.

The Master And Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov ***** I think this might be the best fantasy novel I have ever read. Dave spotted it and downloaded it for our Kindle and I am so glad he did! A deserved classic, I am told this is the book that inspired Mick Jagger to write Sympathy For The Devil (wooo wooo). The Master and Margarita tells two stories, in one Satan visits Moscow to create mayhem and lands several theatrical notables in a mental asylum including the eponymous Master who has failed to publish a novel about Pontius Pilate at the time of the crucifixion. The second storyline is that of the Master's novel. The cast of bizarre characters are truly fantastic and I loved the descriptive sweeps of writing, especially the Ball and Margarita's transformation. The undercurrent of Stalin's dark Russia is always just out of sight but undoubtedly present and the Russian people themselves do not come out of this story well. Bulgakov didn't seem to think they needed much pushing from Satan to be bad!

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward **** It's hard to believe, having finished reading this book, that it only spans twelve days. So much of life is packed in that it's an intense read. Ward's writing is poetic and gentle which contrasts powerfully with the harsh lives and violent events she portrays. Her heroine, Esch, is the only daughter of a poverty-stricken family living in the Mississippi bayou. As Katrina is forecasted and even the wildlife departs the area, this family has no choice but to stay and no one to depend upon but themselves and their small community. Gritty, vicious and real, this is not an easy read, but is a rewarding one.

Ireland's Fairy Lore by Rev Michael P Mahon *** From the synopsis on the ForgottenBooks.org website I was expecting 31 Irish folk tales but this book is more of a survey of the influence of the faery folk on place names and Pagan traditions in Ireland. Rev Mahon was obviously widely read and quotes many medieval and earlier works as he traces the history of the fairies. This is interesting but I did find irritating his patronising assumptions that later Christian beliefs were automatically superior to these Pagan ones - especially at times where one has merely taken over the other. Also, the essays might be 'light hearted' by 1919 standards, but they've become considerably drier by 2014!

The Wild Places by Robert MacFarlane **** I loved immersing myself in MacFarlane's descriptions of the wild places he visited around Britain and Ireland, finding this book even more inspirational that the previous one of his I read, The Old Ways. While I don't think I'm personally up to sleeping out on iced over tarns, I would love to discover for myself some of the places he so eloquently describes. My only real disappointment with this book, which may be more true in the Kindle version I read than for a paper version, is that the text suddenly ends at around 77% to be followed by an extensive bibliography and index. I've now several further titles to search out, but I mistakenly thought I still had hours more MacFarlane reading first!

Piranha To Scurfy by Ruth Rendell **** I'm not generally a short story fan but I enjoyed this collection. The eleven tales range from the mysterious to the macabre and I particularly appreciated the two novellas, Piranha To Scurfy and High Mysterious Union. Rendell is an astute observer of a particular type of middle-class Englishness and these two stories certainly showcase her writing. Piranha To Scurfy reminded me of an Alan Bennett Talking Heads sort of person, albeit even darker! The Beach Butler was my favourite of the short stories.

The Sorrow Of War by Bao Ninh *** This novel of the Vietnam War is interesting for its graphic depictions of the war as it really was for the North Vietnamese soldiers, a civil war between North and South with the Americans an anonymous mass threatening from a distance but rarely the focus. Ninh's writing leaps around in time without any attempt to coherently link events for the reader which gives a fantastic insight into the mind of a soldier destroyed by war, but also makes this a difficult book to understand. Perhaps that is its point. The love story between Kien and Phuong, both little more than children at the war's outbreak, is movingly tender when set against so much violence and their loss of innocence could just as well apply to the whole country that was ripped apart by over a decade of conflict.

The Name Of The Rose by Umberto Eco ***** A brilliant book, certainly one of the most difficult I have ever read and not least because of how much GCSE Latin I have forgotten. The Name Of The Rose is billed as a murder mystery but is also so much more. The mystery plot is interesting but what kept me gripped is the amazing portrayal of medieval life with its insane yet deadly serious theological arguments. Dozens of different sects, all of which claim to be the true Christians, gain or lose power and prestige dependent on the current definition of religious truth. And woe betide any man finding himself on the 'wrong' side - torture and death await. Women, of course, are practically sub-human so are not even afforded the right to argue! This is a fantastic book that beautifully illuminates a bizarre world, one I am grateful I did not experience first hand.

Thin Men, Paper Suits by Tin Larrick *** Pleased to have been steered towards this new collection of short stories by a timely tweet from Tin himself. I enjoyed his first novel, Devil's Chimney. In this collection, we meet a variety of shady and not-so-shady characters - drug smugglers, murderers, professional assassins, detectives and police officers. Most of the stories, apart from one in Amsterdam, are set around the Eastbourne area where I live so I enjoy spotting the local references. The tales all have interesting unexpected twists although I did find a few to be stretching plausibility a little too far and, as the stories are so short, the characters are not as rounded as they could be in a full novel. My favourite story was the intricately plotted Taylor's Dummy, and I also particularly enjoyed the title story, Thin Men Paper Suits and the poignancy of Detective At The Door.

Blindness by Jose Saramago ***** Feeling completely steamrollered by this amazing novel! I listened to a BBC America audio, via Audible, and, although it was an English translation of the original Portuguese, the text retained its poetic quality, horrific and beautiful. Perhaps Margaret Atwood crossed with Cormac McCarthy! I appreciated the 'no names' device - the woman with dark glasses, the first blind man, the woman nobody knows - as it aided understanding their world. The philosophising throughout is very moving and I thought that the calm narration by Jonathan Davies was the perfect way to immerse myself in this dystopian city.

So that's it for January. Seventeen books this month! I am delighted that two books I have released through BookCrossing have been found and journalled by others - Hello and welcome to ShirleyW and dickenscharles! Now, still on the shelf awaiting me I have Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak, White Teeth by Zadie Smith and Jottings by Liz Smith.


  1. I have to admit that I cheated with Umberto Ecco's The Name of the Rose by watching the DVD instead of reading the book. It was really good, so try and find a used dvd copy on amazon or somewhere if you can.

    1. I think I have seen that - Derek Jacobi & Christian Slater? But years ago, so I'll look out for it again :-)