Friday, 28 February 2014

A month in books - February

Another month gone by and only one of travelling left before we will have returned home.
The library at Camping Ria Formosa,
Cabanas de Tavira, Portugal 
Alongside this physical journeying, my extensive reading opportunities have taken me to diverse areas and eras this month, from India to Canada, Elizabethan England to the Vietnam War. There's over books reviewed this month including a couple of real bricks - Doctor Zhivago is not to be undertaken lightly! I guess staying on several campsites with lousy wifi signals isn't all bad because I've ended up with so much more reading time!

Three books got a full five stars and one was so bad, I gave up reading it. Click on the titles to go through to their pages if you'd like to buy any of these books!

The Savage Garden by Mark Mills ***
It took me several chapters to get into this novel and the 400 year old mystery interested me more than the recent one. There are lots of references to Greek and Roman gods & goddesses so I learned a few of their stories, and am now tempted to try reading Dante's Divine Comedy which is also effectively a central character. I found it hard to believe that the timespan depicted is only two weeks as this seemed far too short for everything to occur - perhaps a whole summer would be more believable. Overall, this is a nice holiday read, a gentle murder mystery without much in the way of graphic violence!

Jottings by Liz Smith ***
This collection of ten short stories goes to much darker places than I expected from Liz Smith, but then I only really know her from her characters in The Royle Family and Lark Rise. Two stories, Eliza and Christine, take up most of the book with Eliza particularly being an interesting tale of an abused wife seizing an unexpected opportunity. Other stories might last only a couple of pages and one poem is included, but, for me, these additional pieces felt more like padding and didn't have the conviction and depth of Eliza.

White Teeth by Zadie Smith *****
Having been underwhelmed by The Autograph Man and NW, I wasn't sure what to expect from White Teeth. Smith's first novel, it was everywhere 14 years ago but for some reason I can't remember, I hadn't read it. I'm so glad I found a copy now! White Teeth could have been written by a different author to the other two. I love the variety of fleshed-out real characters, their speech is authentic and believable, and the time-placing touches are fun to spot - yes, I read Schnews too! Perhaps the wrapping up and combining of storylines in the last few pages is a bit too convenient, but this doesn't matter. White Teeth is an engrossing novel, so much so that I even put it down more often than necessary, just so I could stay in that world for longer.

Yellow Crocus by Laila Ibrahim ***
A timely review by +Ashley LaMar on Google+ alerted me to this book so I got it on Kindle. The story, set in 1840s Virginia, is of a black slave woman, Mattie, and the rich white girl, Lisbeth, she is forced to abandon her own son to raise. Despite living on a slave plantation, Lisbeth remains remarkably naive of the realities of life for the negro population, a device that allows Ibrahim to teach the reader as Lisbeth also learns. I did like the scene where the young Society girls dismiss Jane Austen heroes as having no freedom when they themselves are in exactly the same situation regarding their future marriages. And of course their lack of freedom is nothing compared to the slaves upon whom their families depend. Yellow Crocus is a gentle read as literature of this period goes, probably suitable for older teenage readers as well as adults. The breastfeeding motif is overdone - women and children bond in other ways too - but it's a good story and I liked that it doesn't have an unrealistically 'happy ending'.

The new art of writing plays by Lope de Vega ***
This book is one of my WorldReads from Spain.

As a theatre fan, this title as the free Book of the Day on caught my eye and I'm glad I downloaded it. Beginning with a introduction that seems as long as the speech itself, I was already familiar with what I would read before I got there. The speech Lope de Vega made is humorous and, interestingly, makes several points about the theatre-going public that are just as true some 400 years later: "since the crowd pays for the comedies, it is fitting to talk foolishly to it to satisfy its taste" and "Very seldom should the stage remain without someone speaking, because the crowd becomes restless in these intervals"! It is a shame that de Vega isn't better known in English as his amazing output is certainly one to rival Shakespeare, especially as they wrote at around the same time.

Records of the Historian by Szuma Chien *
Sadly, I've finally found a book that I just couldn't read! I tried 50 pages but this history is so dry that I've had to give up on it. The dozens of mini-biographies should provide an interesting view of ancient China, but the text is all 'someone went here, someone else said that, someone else invaded, someone else said this' with no explanation of who these people are and why they take the actions they do. Disappointing.

Roseanna by Sjowall and Wahloo ****
Backtracking from the 2nd book to the one that started it all thanks to a cheap 1-4 set on Kindle! This novel is just as good as its successor, introducing the regular characters in a natural style that doesn't feel like a deliberate setting up. The lack of technology is refreshing and I especially like the tense scenes where Beck and Co wait for calls from Stenstrom. Out in the city he can only get to a public payphone every few hours. Strong storyline featuring seemingly real people. Great crime writing.

Monsieur Linh and His Child by Philippe Claudel *****
It is rare that a book manages to move me to tears, but Monsieur Linh did just that. Even in translation (beautifully achieved by Euan Cameron) the prose is emotional and elegant. The story of an elderly and traumatised Vietnamese man arriving in a French detention centre is deceptively simple and not much actually happens, but in his descriptions of this not much, Claudel opens our eyes to such great pain and despair that I believe any reader would struggle to remain untouched. Monsieur is the third in Claudel's loose trilogy of 'war' books and I have loved reading all three.

The Chemistry of Tears by Peter Carey **
I saw a fascinating TV documentary about automata which included footage of the incredible swan whose creation is described in The Chemistry of Tears. I suppose I was hoping some of its magic might have transferred but unfortunately this is not the case. Carey's main protagonists, Catherine and Henry, despite being 200 years apart, are both self-absorbed and unhinged through grief but this comes across more as a literary device than genuine emotion. They aren't likeable people. I kept reading hoping Henry's diary would contain revelations about the swan, but his disjointed account doesn't even describe its German craftsmen in a lifelike way. I didn't connect with this novel at all and found it disappointing.

A Very Long Engagement by Sebastien Japrisot ****
One of my WorldReads from France

Moving story of a young woman's search for the truth about what happened to her fiance in the First World War. Overcoming her disability - a childhood accident left her unable to walk - gives Mathilde the strength of mind to persevere over months and years, disentangling truths, half-truths and lies that many put in her way in order to prevent the shameful treatment of condemned soldiers coming to light. The film version of this story is one of my favourites (with Audrey Tautou as a wonderful Mathilde), so I remembered the ending. I had not previously read the book though and the two are very similar, although there is more detail written and Mathilde's disability is more severe.

Jumping Ship by +Janice Ross **
Described as an introductory novella, this book is actually three scenes in interconnected lives. We meet an American couple in 1970s New York, a Guyanese couple eloping some months previously and finally, some twenty-fours years later, the grown-up daughter who links them all. Jumping Ship has very little storyline and I presume this will follow in the planned resultant series. However this device was not revealed until the end which made me feel cheated. The text is mostly dry description which would be fine in the context of a full novel, but dull without that support. I think one complete novel would be more rewarding to the reader than marketing what is effectively a prologue. Also, I don't understand why the Guyanese speech is 'translated' when it is already perfectly clear what the characters are saying.

Quiet by Susan Cain ****
"Responsible and mature but doesn't talk enough in class" was the gist of my reports all the way through school. I'm exactly the type of person Susan Cain discusses in Quiet and it has been a great pleasure to hear my temperament justified in the audio version of the book. In fact, so much so that starting to speak with the phrase "Susan Cain says" is beginning to be greeted with raised eyebrows! I hadn't been aware of the transition of societal emphasis from character to personality but many of the factors described are so true to my experience, particularly at work where my plummeting concentration levels coincided with my former tranquil 2-person office becoming a loud 11-person space. The neurological analyses were very interesting as I discovered why I react in certain ways and that I don't need to apologise for it - there's nothing wrong with me! Quiet does have a strong American bias so I found some references obscure but enough British culture is similar that the topics featured are completely relevant. A fascinating listen.

Your Blue-eyed Boy by Helen Dunmore ****
There's a dark thread of foreboding that runs throughout this novel. The threat of information from Simone's teenage years reappearing to destroy her adult life is excellently plotted and I found it difficult to put this book down. I loved the descriptions of the grey, stormy British coastline. The characters of Simone and her family are done well although I wasn't able to get a handle on Michael - perhaps that was the point. Your Blue-Eyed Boy is a clever psychological thriller that creeps up on its reader, keeping the tension all the way to the end.

Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak ****
One of my WorldReads from Russia

Tagged with "one of the greatest love stories ever told", I was misled into expecting this book to be more romance than history. Perhaps worded as a result of the film version, the novel itself is far more. Set during the Russian Revolution(s), we follow the life of a young doctor as he and his wife attempt to keep their family together amid intense turmoil. I loved Pasternak's descriptions of Russia, both the land and her people, and for me, this was the 'great love' of the novel. There is extensive political discussion enabling me to learn about the many factions involved. I found this interesting but it does slow the pace considerably which could put off readers preferring more action-based novels.

The Clock Winder by Anne Tyler *****
Perfectly observed novel telling the story of Elizabeth, an aimless teenager who takes a summer job as handyman to an eccentric recently-widowed woman. Mrs Emerson and her bizarre brood of seven children come to rely more and more on Elizabeth, causing her to reject their neediness and leave. The Clock Winder revisits Elizabeth at intervals over some years as she gravitates around the Emerson family, both attracted and repulsed by them. I love Anne Tyler's descriptive writing and the way she can portray fine nuances of character through deceptively simple dialogue. This is primarily a novel of characters rather than action, accurately described by Dave as like watching a French film. An emotional read.

The Sikhs of the Punjab by R E Parry ***
A short tome which veers from lists of dry facts to personal anecdotes by the author. Written in 1921, the book presents a British view of the Punjab especially in discussing how the area is being drained of crop yields for European markets and of Sikh men for soldiering. Parry is complimentary about Silkhs but in a patronising 'Raj' way! I found the descriptions of town design and housing interesting, also the lengthy section on weather and the monsoons.

Following the Drum by Annabel Venning ***
For me, this book was frequently infuriating as, instead of presenting its information by woman or even by campaign, it is arranged loosely by topic so keeps jumping around through different time periods and stories. There has obviously been a vast amount of research, but with so many snippets of lives to keep track of, I found this left me with muddy impressions rather than clear pictures of each era. However, the snobbery and class prejudice of army life are clearly portrayed alongside the generally misogynistic and imperialist attitudes! Much of the emotional and excitement fails to come across which is a shame. Perhaps this is a book that is better to dip into from time to time than to read all in one go?

Granada, Seville and Cordoba (Cadogan Guides) ****
We bought this pocket guide to accompany our citybreak to Cordoba several years ago and enjoyed its refreshingly dry sense of humour when describing many of the more pompous sights and attractions. We kept the book in hopes of one day also getting to Granada and/or Seville and we have now been to both! Obviously information about restaurants and bars has dated over the years but the guidance about historical sights, especially those off the beaten track was welcome. We would not have known of the fantastic Italica site otherwise and that alone justified the guide's purchase for us.

Deafening by Frances Itani ****
One of my WorldReads from Canada

I nearly didn't choose this book due to its generic women's lit cover art, but quotes from the Independent, Times and Guardian convinced me. Set in early 1900s Canada, Deafening tells the story of a deaf girl, Grania, from her early childhood through adolescence to adulthood. I was fascinated by the wealth of detail about everyday life for deaf people during this era. Grania's eventual romance with a hearing man, Jim, is trumpeted in the back cover synopsis but forms little of the book as the two are soon separated by his enlistment for the Great War. The war descriptions are graphic and harrowing to read with a frightening sense of realism imparted by the simple prose. Deafening proved to be a memorable novel and I found myself thinking for several days about it and the issues it raises.

Elizabeth by David Starkey ****
Starkey's biography of the early life of Britain's greatest Queen, Elizabeth I, reads in several places almost like a historical thriller. He concentrates especially on the motivations of the central characters, why they did things as well as what they actually did. The intricacies of the religious bickering was quite difficult for me to follow, but I am now much clearer on the main arguments and how seriously the different factions felt about what in some cases seems to be trivial word differences now. Elizabeth's personality shines through. There were many details of her childhood and adolescence that I did not previously know including just how many times she nearly didn't survive, let alone reign. There are two sections of colour plates that reproduce paintings so we get to see the protagonists as well as reading about them. Starkey has revisited and reinterpreted contemporary sources and is scathing about several other historians' opinions which is amusing to read. Overall, a great way to learn history.

The Man on the Balcony by Sjowall and Wahloo ***
I didn't find this third book in the Martin Beck crime series as gripping as the first two although it was still a good read. Apparently it is closely based on a real-life crime in Stockholm in the early 1960s so perhaps this had an effect on the writing style. Certainly the procedural part of the novel came to the fore more than the character insights that particularly interested me in the previous books. The dry humour wasn't as frequent either. I did like the device of seeing through the eyes of the eponymous man on the balcony right at the beginning and then not really knowing how he fitted into the story until much later.

Outer Dark by Cormac McCarthy ****
A brother and sister in an America of no particular place and time set out independently, poverty-stricken and travelling on foot. She is searching for the baby that he left out in a wood to die. He is searching for her. Between them they meet a cast of bizarre and dark characters, some possibly mythic, others only too depressingly human. McCarthy doesn't have a storyline as such but the series of scenes is compelling. His dialogue is incredibly real and I loved that I didn't even recognise many dialect words, much less understand them. I think there are probably deeper levels to this novel that I discovered at first reading and would be interested to learn what others took from it.

Alleluia America! by Carole Coleman ****
One of my WorldReads from Ireland

With apologies to Carole Coleman, this book is a far better read than I expected from the cover and synopsis. The Irish journalist undertook a tour of religious communities in America to try and discover why so much of their daily lives revolve around faith when religion generally is in decline across Europe. Coleman met with many people of varying beliefs both religious and political. Muslims, Jews and New Agers do get a voice but most are various types of Christians. The picture she paints of contemporary America is often frightening but allowed me understand more of the reasoning behind its public swagger and privately-held fears. I appreciated her calm and balanced questions and discussions in a area which is often fraught with high emotion. Perhaps a 2015 follow-up would be interesting?

That's all for February! I have just started listening to Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut on audio from and have Secret Speech by Tom Rob Smith and Revenge by Yoko Ogawa lined up to read.

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