Monday, 31 March 2014

A month in books - March

Remembering sunnier reads in Portugal! 
Fourteen books read or heard in March including classic Vonnegut on audio, a Japanese collection of short stories, my first ever Jodi Picoult novel and a brand new steampunk adventure. Two five star reads and no book got the dreaded one star! The choices get further from my usual reading as bookswap shelves closer to home had much more limited selections. I had my fears confirmed by some titles, but was pleasantly surprised too.

I need to find out where my nearest BookCrossing venue is to Polegate now we're back. There's a cafe in Eastbourne mentioned on the website but I'm pretty sure it's closed down. If anyone knows of an OBCZ around here, please let me know.

Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut ****

My copy of Cat's Cradle was audio from +Audible.co.uk, narrated by Tony Roberts. I'm sure that there's still more layers to this novel that passed me by, but I enjoyed its wicked humour and sharp observations of human behaviour. The storyline is wonderfully outlandish and I would be interested to know if the science of Ice Nine is even feasible? However, it is the calypsos of the Bokononist faith that I think will be the most memorable for me. The astute comments on religion, power, learning and life are so true.

Revenge by Yoko Ogawa *****
There is nothing excessive or extraneous in Ogawa's writing. Every word is precise, restrained and elegant yet she manages to conjure up haunting and gruesome images out of initially everyday situations. I love the interlinking of the eleven stories which, in several cases, hinged on a seemingly insignificant detail - a deceased hamster for example. There is much sadness and poignancy to this book but Ogawa's imagination and gift for communication is wonderful and I would definitely read her full-length novels on the strength of these stories.

Two Pound Tram by William Newton **
Judging by other reviews on Amazon, this is a Marmite book that people either adore or don't get at all. Personally, I'm in the 'underwhelmed' camp! The story is an fanciful tale of two boys running away from home and buying an ancient horse-drawn tram with which they make their living. So far, so good, but I found the book so lacking in emotional detail and depth that the events described were unbelievable. The boys seem to easily float from one town to another and when crises do occur, there's always a helpful adult on hand to make everything OK again. I lost count of how many chickens the boys stole with no comeback at all! I did enjoy the local interest aspect as much of the story takes place in Worthing which I know quite well, but this wasn't enough to redeem the book.

The Secret Speech by Tom Rob Smith ****
This is the 2nd in the Leo Demidov trilogy. I read them in the order 1, 3, 2 which didn't really spoil any of the over-arc for me as purely by the existence of the 3rd book, I knew Leo would live through this one! Secret Speech refers to a speech made by Krushchev denouncing Stalin's regime which led to the beginnings of change in Soviet Russia. Much of the novel focuses on how this affected those who had been involved at 'ground level', at one point a character states that more Russians were guilty than innocent. An interesting look at this period of Soviet history because, although much of the thriller storyline is outlandish, the historical detail of suspicion, gulags and the Hungarian uprising is believable and real.

Missing Joe by Stephen Thompson ****
An interesting insight into the lives of various members of a Jamaican family, some of whom had emigrated to the UK, and their friends and lovers. I wasn't sure about the mystery aspect of what had happened to Joe because this was very underplayed. However it was a good device to enable his twin, Neville, to encounter a variety of people. Excellent character portrayals meant that each person was immediately real to me and the more 'damaged' people made for fascinating reading. Missing Joe was a fairly quick read and a good novel.

Hope and Glory by Stuart Maconie ****
A very different history book to my recently read Elizabeth by David Starkey, Hope And Glory reads more like an informative chat than a serious lesson although I'm yet to see if this approach is more successful in making information stick in my brain. Maconie has chosen 10 significant days in 20th century Britain as jumping off points to discuss a wide range of topics that influenced our popular culture. Politicians and Royals get a look in but he concentrates more on the input of ordinary citizens from Suffragettes to Live Aid viewers. I like the humour in this book, particularly Maconie's scathing remarks on contemporary chav and celebrity Britain, and I discovered common ground in our shared loves of walking and toasted teacakes. However, for once as I usually ignore them, an index would have been helpful. Several mentioned places inspired me to visit them, but I now have to read through again with notepad in hand to find out the wheres and whys.

A Patchwork Planet by Anne Tyler *****
Fascinating novel about the delinquent son of a rich American family who has reformed and found his place in the world, but still believes himself to be a failure because he doesn't meet up to his family's ideals. Anne Tyler writes wonderfully believable dialogue and every one of her large cast of characters are real people, even those who might only appear for half a page. She's becoming one of my favourite authors and I'm pleased that I still have so much of her back catalogue to discover!

Discovering Aberration by +S.C. Barrus ***
I saw Discovering Aberration marketed on Google+ as a 'steampunk adventure' which intrigued me so I downloaded a copy. The story is inventive with an interesting plot and a strong steampunk feel. It doesn't have a particularly fast pace but Barrus' wordy style is reminiscent of true Victorian authors so I found that this helped to add atmosphere. The varying viewpoints of the narration is a clever touch and nicely done. I did like the cheeky derivation of some characters' names although why 'The Misses' is named in the plural escaped me. On the down side, at the time I read it, DA did suffer from the indie curse of Needing a Good Proofreader as there were irritatingly frequent typos and errors, otherwise it was a fun read. However, I am told that a revised version will be available as of the end of March 2014 with no more distracting typos! "I'm always homesick for the journey" too!

Faraway by Lucy Irvine ****
I picked the right time to read this book as it is ridiculously hot in Spain at the moment, although perhaps still cooler than the Reef Islands. Lucy Irvine's 'biography' of one, Pigeon Island, is fascinating due to her detailed and honest descriptions of its complete clash of cultures. I have scant sympathy for the Hepworths' troubles, seemingly caused primarily by obsessively forcing their style of English life onto an island people who neither wanted or needed it. The Irvines' own successful integration was an interesting counterpoint and it would be nice to know whether Diana Hepworth actually liked this book, resulting as it did from her original commission.

Cold Hand in Mine by Robert Aickman **
Another +Audible.co.uk download and, this time, one that I struggled to get through even though the collection of eight 'strange' short stories is marketed as Aickman's best. The author wrote subtle, creeping horror rather than out and out gore but unfortunately several stories are so subtle that I remained unmoved. Reece Shearsmith's odd narration doesn't particularly help either which surprised me. He sounds unrehearsed, continually halting mid-sentence and putting emphases where they don't seem to fit. The fifth story, The Hospice, is the best of a so-so bunch as its spooky atmosphere does build up nicely, but I wouldn't read any more Aickman after this experience.

Blackberry Wine by Joanne Harris ***
A weird mish-mash of ideas in this novel which is irritatingly narrated by a bottle of wine. There are other 'magical' bottles too but fortunately they fade out as each is drunk. The two-part storyline describes Jay's teenage summers of rural 1970s idyll and I enjoyed these sections, particularly his relationship with Joe who is by far the best character in the whole book. However, young Jay's chapters alternate with those of adult Jay, a self-obsessed alcoholic who emigrates to rural France in a fug of wine fumes to discover the true meaning of life among comfortingly familiar stereotypes in the Chocolat village. I guess this novel was aspirational for Brits still dreaming of Peter Mayle-type escapism a decade ago but, for me reading now, Blackberry Wine mostly felt dated and twee.

The Path to the Lake by Susan Harris **
My first Susan Sallis novel and on the strength of this tale, probably my last too. I chose it as the main character, Viv, was described as a runner. As a runner myself, I thought I would identify and it's not often novelised women get such an independent and active interest. However, it soon became clear that running was purely a symptom of Viv's grief at her husband's death and as she began to recover, she swiftly gave it up in favour of babies and obsessional Victoria Sponge baking. 'Proper' things for a woman to do. The Path To The Lake does have a few good minor characters, particularly Jinx and the monosyllabic Mick Hardy, but the leads are flat and difficult to sympathise with. The supernatural element didn't work at all for me and I didn't understand the door knob at all. Oh, and the tying-up of loose ends at the end is so contrived as to be laughable. Except it's not funny.

Picture Perfect by Jodi Picoult ***
The central storyline of Picture Perfect is an accurate and moving portrayal of domestic abuse which manages to understand both the abused and the abuser and gives frightening insights into both worlds. However, the tale is shrouded in a lot of superfluous description of movie star, Alex Rivers', wealth, houses and possessions which I didn't need to read about again, and again. The detail of Native American lives was interesting, especially as seen in contrast to the rich white enclave. Overall, I felt as though this book hadn't really decided whether it wanted to be styled as a serious literature or a frothy romance. Ultimately it falls between the two stools which detracts from its important message.

The Summer Of Secrets by Martina Reilly ****
I was pleasantly surprised by The Summer Of Secrets having expected a lightweight chick-lit novel and ended up with something much deeper and, in places, darker. Whoever chose the cover art really isn't doing the book justice! The three friends, Hope, Julie and Adam, are well-written and nicely flawed (from a reader's point of view!). Hope's bickering with new neighbour Logan did become a little tiresome after a while making him seem flat by comparison. I liked the story's pace which kept me interested throughout and, although the ending is predictable, it is also satisfying.

I'm currently listening to Celia Imrie's autobiography on audio so my review of that will be the start of April's A month in books post. I'm also planning to revisit favourite books that have languished at home while we've been travelling, some of which I haven't read for several years and none of which I've previously reviewed. It will be interesting to see how many are still as good as I remember.

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