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wandering_ round the world in 2016

Club Read 2016

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1wandering_star
Edited: Jan 2, 2016, 2:40pm Top

Hello Club Read 2016! It's been eight good years since the first Club Read group, and I'm looking forward to hearing about everyone's reading once again.

Plans for 2016? I don't like to make plans (and I am terrible at sticking to them) but I have a couple of ideas for things I'd like to try this year.

One is inspired by one of my favourite podcasts, Pop Culture Happy Hour, in which each episode ends with the podcast crew talking about a piece of pop culture that is making them happy that week. I would like to try and do the same, and share them here. It won't always be about books and as in the podcast, sometimes 'pop culture' will be pretty broadly defined! But I feel that last year went by in a flash and I would like to find ways to mark the passage of time and to stop to notice what I am doing, and this I hope is one of them.

The second is to up my 'serious' non-fiction reading by reading at least one per month.

Finally, my best reads of 2015 (cross-posted from last year's list):

The Ancillary Mercy trilogy by Ann Leckie, all of which I read this year, all of which were excellent in different ways, and which ended very satisfyingly (although I still want to know more about the translators!)
Flood of Fire by Amitav Ghosh, the last in another trilogy, and with some thematic overlap with Ancillary Mercy - although this is real historic colonialism rather than the space-opera variety
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

The best short story was "Story of Your Life" from Ted Chiang's SF Stories of Your Life and Others - I read it in March and still find myself thinking about it from time to time.

The best graphic novel was Weapons of Mass Diplomacy

Top for enjoyment were
The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace & Babbage by Sydney Padua
The Long Ships by Frans G Bengtsson

I had less standout non-fiction this year, but the best ones were
How To Speak Money by John Lanchester
Ten Cities That Made an Empire by Tristram Hunt

2wandering_star
Edited: Feb 1, 2016, 7:21pm Top

Wishlisted in Jan

My Policeman by Bethan Roberts
The Redemption of Galen Pike by Carys Davies
Magda by Meike Ziervogel
The Hunger Trace by Edward Hogan
Deep Water by Patricia Highsmith
The Proof of Love by Catherine Hall
Ship of Fools by Katherine Anne Porter
- all from this episode of The Readers podcast

The Great World by David Malouf, added based on liking Remembering Babylon

The Coffee Trader by David Liss, from Chatterbox's review and the following discussion

Take A Girl Like You (Kingsley Amis) from this

The Wooden World and Jack Tar - both cultural histories of the Royal Navy, based on a conversation with someone who's doing a PhD in the subject.

Acquired in Jan

To The Ends of The Earth by William Golding - dropping off some used books at the secondhand shop I found this, from my wishlist
Under the Net and The Bell by Iris Murdoch - borrowed from parental shelves after another episode of The Readers podcast in which they were recommended by one of the hosts as a good place to get into Iris Murdoch, to the other host who (like me) had only read The Sea, The Sea and had been nonplussed by it.
Joseph Anton by Salman Rushdie and The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson - both from Audible because I had to use up my credits before I could cancel my monthly subscription.
Watson's Choice by Gladys Mitchell and The Santa Klaus Murder by Mavis Doriel Hay, both from the shelf of free books at my local post office.

Hmm, it's 5 Jan and I have acquired 7 books this year. No wonder I am struggling with my TBR!

Oh dear. Went into a charity shop yesterday whose books were 50p each or 4 for £1. Found two from my wishlist (The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan and Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon), so it would have been rude not to take two more... I plumped for Before the Feast by Saša Stanišic (looked interesting, and I'm a sucker for picking up proof copies) and Black Powder War by Naomi Novik (I've read the first in the series, and it was fun - like Patrick O'Brien with dragons).

Knowing that I have already bought a lot of books this year, when I went past the Oxfam Bookshop in Cambridge I thought that I shouldn't go in. Then I thought maybe I'd go in but only look to see if they had The Great Night by Chris Adrian, currently top of my wishlist. What do you know - they did! Now I wish I'd also looked to see if they had Hild, the new top of my wishlist.

Thing Explainer - late Christmas present.
Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, new Salman Rushdie, half-price as Heffers was selling off the shiny hardbacks they'd stocked up on before Christmas.

10 Jan. Books bought = 14. Books read = 1!

Thailand at Random - a commonplace-book style collection of information and trivia about Thailand - passing Stanfords with a little bit of time to kill I popped in to look at their selection of books on Thailand, and this looked interesting
Walking Dead by Peter Dickinson - from a shelf of secondhand books in a local cafe - I quite like Peter Dickinson's quirky mysteries and almost all of them are out of print
The Conservationist by Nadine Gordimer and Nikolski by Nicholas Dickner - local library sale
The Balloonist by Macdonald Harris and The Long Walk by Slavomir Rawicz, both Amazon offers
Thing To Love by Geoffrey Household, the first of my 'random book club' books that I've actually kept!
Peaceland and Spying for the People - CUP sale

3arubabookwoman
Jan 7, 2016, 8:42pm Top

Did you get the trilogy To the Ends of the Earth, or just the volume titled that within the trilogy? Golding is one of my favorite authors, and I read the trilogy several years ago.

I read, or rather listened to, Joseph Anton last year, and it was quite good.

4wandering_star
Jan 8, 2016, 2:37am Top

>3 arubabookwoman: The whole trilogy. I'm glad you liked Joseph Anton. I hadn't been particularly interested in it until I heard Rushdie telling some of the story on a podcast, and he came across as more down to earth than his image suggests.

5kidzdoc
Jan 8, 2016, 2:41pm Top

Happy New Year, Margaret! I look forward to your reading accomplishments this year.

6wandering_star
Jan 9, 2016, 2:32am Top

Thanks Darryl! There will be a review soon, I promise!

7wandering_star
Jan 11, 2016, 6:50pm Top

At last - the first book of the year! It's The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard, which tells the story of Caro Bell, who we meet first in post-war England when she is a young woman newly arrived from Australia. The story stays with her for the next 30 years, although there is less detail and more gaps as the years pass, because this is really a history of her emotional life, especially the loves and lusts.

Caro is beautiful and graceful, but what sets her apart from other young women is her quiet self-possession and refusal to dissemble about emotions. Men respond to this in different ways - some see it as a challenge, one - a scientist called Ted Tice - loves her eternally but unrequitedly, others are unsettled by the fact that despite the fact that she is young, female and a colonial, she does not know her place (it's a very unflattering portrait of post-war England, snobbish, petty, passionless and stifling).

One of the reasons that this took me so long to read is that it's one of those books - Penelope Fitzgerald is another writer who does this - where so much of the meaning is subtly placed between the lines that you have to read slowly and carefully to understand everything that is going on and to appreciate everything the writer is doing - it's almost like reading poetry. I found that I couldn't read it if there was any distraction at all - background noise or something at the back of my mind. I also got a bit lost in the final third of the book, as the story arc only came back together right at the end, and so I wasn't sure of the shape of the book (Penelope Fitzgerald's books are much shorter!).

But it was well worth it - I enjoyed savouring the writing, and the insights into humanity - sometimes expressed through the way that relationships develop, sometimes in epigrams ("Men go through life telling themselves a moment must come when they will show what they're made of. And the moment comes, and they do show. And they spend the rest of their days explaining that it was neither the moment nor the true self.") There is a strong morality in the book, which suggests that what we will ultimately be judged on is our levels of selfishness and self-deception, against generosity and emotional honesty.

This was a good book to start the year with, for several reasons. I am often guilty of reading too quickly and not taking in everything of the book - well, I couldn't do that here. And this was a book with great writing, which made me stop and think (and, incidentally, whose ending devastated me). I read books to discover gems like this.

The climax of the sequence was that Paul, with an instinct for the fluctuations of resistance, once again embraced her, putting his arms inside her open coat as if entering her protection. Her umbrella fell to the bare boards with a tactless clatter. She did not raise her arms to him. Paul said, "How cold. How cold you are."

8wandering_star
Jan 11, 2016, 7:46pm Top

And my first What's making me happy this week: on Friday I finally went to see the blockbuster exhibition of Indian fabrics at the V&A. It was fantastic.

First of all, another exhibition visitor tipped me off that I should go immediately to see Tipu Sultan's tent before the room filled up (I was there as the museum opened), so I was able to sit under this huge and richly decorated tent:



in a completely empty room.

The exhibition is comprehensive and full of the most beautiful things - I especially enjoyed trying to imagine the fabrics in situ, whether they were temple decorations, opulent wall hangings or - especially - clothes. Imagine getting up in the morning and deciding that you were going to wear this beautifully and ornately embroidered hunting jacket from the 1620s:



and in close-up:



My favourite room, of course, was the one about the global trade in Indian fabrics (I find the meeting and mixing of cultures fascinating). It's a trade that goes back - one of the earliest surviving Indian textiles is a fragment of wool from 100-300 AD, found in an abandoned oasis city in what is now Xinjiang. The book of Job lists Indian dyes among the treasures that can't be compared to wisdom. Roman chronicles complained of the trade in Indian textiles "emptying the coffers of Rome".

The room displayed Indian fabrics designed for the Thai and Indonesian markets as well as European ones - I like to see things like this, as I think in the West we are taught only about how other parts of the world have interacted with us and not how they interacted with each other. There was also a flowing, floral "banyan" gown which would have been worn by an 18th-century Dutch merchant while relaxing (I really feel sorry for modern men stuck with such boring clothes) and an amazing embroidered bedspread made for a Portuguese noble family around 1600-1620, with designs of European ships and the family's coat of arms. "Fusion" goes back a long way too too - one exhibit was a 1725 wall hanging of Indian chintz, made in India for the Dutch market, with a design based on Japanese woodblock prints.

Terrific modern fabrics and fashion too, and some photos from this excellent Indian street style blog.

I'm so glad I made it before the exhibition closed - I only wish I'd visited earlier so that I'd have had a chance to go back.

9LolaWalser
Jan 11, 2016, 8:54pm Top

Omg, that is like something out of the most beautiful dream ever.

10rebeccanyc
Jan 12, 2016, 11:33am Top

I loved The Transit of Venus when I read it many years ago. Thanks for reminding me of it..

And love the images of the Indian fabrics, especially the first one.

11Nickelini
Jan 12, 2016, 11:48am Top

>2 wandering_star: so it would have been rude not to take two more...

I've always thought you had such nice manners.

Thanks for the encouragement with Transit of Venus. It's been in my TBR for a while now.

Love all those pictures. The V&A is such a wonderful museum. I'm looking forward to spending many more hours there.

12cabegley
Jan 12, 2016, 3:48pm Top

Transit of Venus has been on my shelves for far too long--sounds like I should read it.

What a beautiful tent! That exhibition sounds wonderful.

13wandering_star
Edited: Jan 12, 2016, 5:35pm Top

Thanks everyone - there are some great photos & info on the exhibition website.

2. Eva Moves the Furniture by Margot Livesey

That was quicker! Eva is a Scottish girl, growing up in a small village. She is shy and solitary, perhaps because (and perhaps therefore) she has two "companions", a woman and a girl who appear and vanish when they want to, and who no-one else can see. They sometimes protect her, but they also interfere in her life, nudging her to do things which take her life in particular directions.

The book's title comes from the fact that these two companions sometimes behave like poltergeists, overturning things and shifting the furniture around. It's also a reference to the social changes happening because of World War Two (during which Eva moves to the city and works as a nurse): "Were the facts I had taken for granted going to start shifting like the furniture? Yes, of course - the whole world was shifting..."

The slightly misleading thing about this is that Eva herself is a rather passive character, allowing the companions to make decisions for her and not really questioning them too much. For me this was a flaw in the book as I was expecting some sort of resolution to the relationship, which didn't materialise. There are some beautiful and some eerie moments in the book, and I enjoyed reading it, but for me it ended up less than the sum of its parts. (I notice that a lot of the positive reviews on LT talk about how the book evokes the relationship between mother and daughter - perhaps as I don't have children that did not especially resonate with me).

"How long will you be away?" I stepped closer, hoping he might speak for himself. His fine brown hair stirred, as if a breeze were passing. It touched me too. I breathed in a fragrance I recognised, not of medicine or disinfectant but of heather or the sea. As the older man wheeled the chair swiftly forward, I seemed to hear the words, "A long time."

14reva8
Jan 12, 2016, 7:01pm Top

>7 wandering_star: Fantastic review, I'm bookmarking this to read later.
>8 wandering_star: I'm so envious of you! It seems to be a fantastic exhibition.

15theaelizabet
Jan 12, 2016, 11:31pm Top

>7 wandering_star: Excellent review! How long has this book been sitting on my shelves, along with The Great Fire? I don't know if you listen to Eleanor Wachtel for "Writers and Company" on CBC, but she did an outstanding interview with Hazzard. I'm intrigued by the comparison to Fitzgerald. I've just finished the bio about her and hope to read more of her work this year.

>13 wandering_star: Yet another book that sits on my shelf. I'll be watching your reading this year with interest.

16Poquette
Jan 14, 2016, 1:39am Top

>8 wandering_star: Envy your trip to the V&A, and how wonderful to see all those sumptuous Indian fabrics, etc.

17lilisin
Jan 14, 2016, 2:17am Top

>2 wandering_star:

10 Jan. Books bought = 14. Books read = 1!

Oh dear.
But congratulations on your second book read!

18FlorenceArt
Jan 14, 2016, 2:50am Top

Too bad the exhibition is closed now, it sounded great and would have been a convenient excuse for me to hop to London during my extended vacation. But I'm sure I can find another excuse...

19kidzdoc
Jan 14, 2016, 5:59am Top

Great reviews of The Transit of Venus and Eva Moves the Furniture, Margaret.

Thanks for your description of the Indian fabric exhibition at the V&A; I see that it closed this weekend. I may make my first trip of the year to London in late March, so I'll have to see what's on at the museums in and outside of the capital.

20wandering_star
Jan 16, 2016, 6:42am Top

>11 Nickelini:, >12 cabegley:, >15 theaelizabet: - if it's on your TBR, do read it - I'd love to know what you think.

>15 theaelizabet: thanks for letting me know about the CBC interview with Shirley Hazzard, I do download them from time to time but I don't have that one.

21wandering_star
Jan 16, 2016, 7:04am Top

One day in the middle of the nineteenth century, when settlement in Queensland had advanced little more than halfway up the coast, three children were playing at the edge of a paddock when they saw something extraordinary.

So starts 3. Remembering Babylon by David Malouf. The extraordinary thing is a man, limping out of the bush, a man with straw-coloured hair but the movements, the look and the smell of a "blackfeller". The children march him to their settlement - it's not yet a town - and gradually the adults discover that he was an English ship's boy who had been cast ashore a decade or more previously, and who had been living with the indigenous people since then. The children's parents take him in, but his presence unsettles many people.

This is above all the story of a community who are living with very little connection to their location. They don't understand the land, its fruits and animals, its weather and moods, and the presence of Gemmy reminds them sharply of the precariousness of their existence. It's not him that they fear so much as the reminder that they are vulnerable. The authority of their law is only there if you recognise it, and Gemmy's existence suggests that even the superiority of their whiteness and civilisedness is something which could be taken away.

You took it for granted that life would stay normal, and if you believed that hard enough, it did. Three meals on the table, plates drying on the rack, a wash on the line, shirts, children's things, empty for now but ready to be drawn over your head and stepped into, and hooked and buttoned and soiled and sweat-stained in the time to come.

A very interesting read, which boldly does not take the story in quite the direction the reader expects, and which pauses the story just before the resolution to tell stories of other characters which at first seem ephemeral, but which turn out to suggest some alternative ways of living in this new and strange place.

22cabegley
Jan 16, 2016, 7:27am Top

>21 wandering_star: I read and really enjoyed Ransom by David Malouf a few years ago, and for some reason have never sought out more of his work. It appears I need to rectify that.

23SassyLassy
Jan 16, 2016, 2:46pm Top

This sounds right up my alley. Added to the list.

24ELiz_M
Jan 17, 2016, 8:34am Top

>21 wandering_star: Excellent review! This book made a strong impression when I read it a few years back.

25kidzdoc
Jan 17, 2016, 10:24am Top

Nice review of Remembering Babylon. I've had that on my TBR pile for several years, so I'll move it higher on the queue.

26wandering_star
Jan 19, 2016, 6:33pm Top

I'm a bit overdue in posting last week's What's making me happy this week. Partly it's because I'm not sure how to describe it - it was a dance performance, so it feels impossible to convey it in words.

The production was Akram Khan's "Until the Lions", named for a proverb which apparently exists in many African languages, that "until the lions learn to write, every story will glorify the hunter". Khan was inspired by the writer and choreographer Karthika Nair who wrote a book of poetry retelling the stories of some of the women in the Mahabharata, including the story told here, of a princess who is abducted from her betrothal ceremony and who takes revenge killing herself and magically becoming a male warrior, who then kills her abductor.

I didn't know all this when I watched the performance - I normally prefer to go into things without knowing about them beforehand, although ideally, I would love to see this again now that I know the story. What I experienced, though, was a powerful and disturbing performance, which hit me emotionally in a way that dance doesn't normally do - I usually enjoy it on an aesthetic or intellectual level but this really gripped me. There were three dancers - the princess, her abductor, and a third dancer who became the princess' reincarnation, and who for the entire performance never moved like a human being - she seemed to be many different animals from a soaring bird to a scuttling dog. Unfortunately I can't find a photo to do her performance justice but here is a picture of the overall staging (we had fantastic seats - second row, with empty seats in front of us) and of the two other dancers.





I highly recommend this Desert Island Discs interview with Akram Khan from a few years ago - he used to pretend to go to school, then sneak back to the house when his parents had gone to work and dance all day in the garage.

27wandering_star
Jan 19, 2016, 6:51pm Top

4. The Forever War by Joe Haldeman

This much-praised 1970s science fiction imagines a war against an alien race in which the physics of space travel ("collapsor jumps") mean that time passes differently for the fighters than it does back on earth - after a two-year tour of duty (as experienced by the soldiers) over twenty years have passed on earth.

Great idea, but I was very frustrated by how little the book did with it. The author's note in my edition mentions the parallels with Vietnam, and perhaps it aims to be about the futility of war and the way that fighting detaches soldiers from the societies which sent them. But in that case I would have liked more about the social impacts, or the psychological impacts on the soldiers, which we get remarkably little of, except for the obsession with sex (I was going to say sexual orientation, but the main reason the narrator is uncomfortable with the future prevalence of homosexuality is the fact that he can't make passes at attractive females under his command...) I would even have been happy to read more about the technical war-fighting consequences of all the time-jumping - because different trajectories of travel mean a different number of collapsor jumps, when an earth ship approaches a battle it has no idea whether the alien vessel's weaponry will be primitive in comparison to its own, or light years ahead.

This was obviously an influential book at the time, as it won both the Hugo and Nebula awards. To me, I felt the ideas that it has to express are about enough for a short story, and I would love to see what someone like Ann Leckie could make of the same premise.

It made you wonder how many soldiers had gotten out of the war in just that way. There were forty-two strike forces lost somewhere and unaccounted for. It was possible that all of them were crawling through normal space at near-lightspeed and would show up at Earth or Stargate one-by-one over the centuries.

28valkyrdeath
Jan 19, 2016, 8:37pm Top

>27 wandering_star: I read The Forever War a few years ago and was thoroughly underwhelmed by it. The idea of the time differences with the war were interesting, but the book then just wandered off onto far less interesting stuff. I didn't like the way it treated homosexuality, and the rapey women in the military have to have sex whenever the men want thing just angered me and I don't remember it being challenged anywhere in the book. I don't understand why it's considered such a classic.

29.Monkey.
Jan 20, 2016, 4:39am Top

>26 wandering_star: That sounds very interesting. At first glance seeing the photos I was thinking it might have been a Cirque (which reminded me that we're going to Varekai in March!), but it sounds really intriguing, with such a fleshed out story behind the performance. Very cool. :)

30wandering_star
Jan 24, 2016, 3:41am Top

>29 .Monkey.: It's funny you should say that... yesterday I went to see Amaluna at the Albert Hall. It is very roughly based on the story of The Tempest and was, of course, completely spectactular:





and a fantastic night out, but for my what's making me happy this week I wanted to pick something slightly different, which is a quote that I heard during a (fairly mundane) training course:



I absolutely love this because I think it's how I approach the world when I am at my best, and I really believe that there are amazing things around us all the time if we only try and notice them. And this quote (from a Victorian writer I think called Eden Phillpott) just expresses that thought so perfectly!

31RidgewayGirl
Jan 24, 2016, 5:31am Top

I really enjoy your "what's making me happy this week" posts.

32wandering_star
Jan 24, 2016, 4:09pm Top

>31 RidgewayGirl: Thanks! I am enjoying working out what each week's subject will be, and I hope they'll be a nice collection of memories for the year too.

>28 valkyrdeath: Yes. There was that really horrible bit about arriving at the station where there were only two female soldiers, who were looking a bit haggard - ugh.

33detailmuse
Jan 24, 2016, 5:20pm Top

Loving what you're pulling out that made you happy. I can't get the Indian textiles out of my mind.

34wandering_star
Jan 24, 2016, 6:48pm Top

5. Barbara the Slut and other people by Lauren Holmes

This book of short stories is full of Generation Z-ers trying (and generally failing) to sort out their lives. The narrator of "How am I supposed to talk to you" goes to Mexico to come out to her mother, and the one in "I will crawl to Raleigh if I have to" breaks up with her boyfriend. The narrators all speak in the same deadpan tone, and have equally affectless approaches to their lives. Work is meaningless, relationships are loveless, and even friends, mostly, are not really friends.

I think the book is fairly well written because - like Banana Yoshimoto - it didn't annoy me despite the fact that the subject matter is hapless youth, something I normally find pretty irritating. I know that's faint praise for a book which has been highly recommended by its fans, and features enthusiastic cover blurbs from Colum McCann, Nathan Englander and Phil Klay. But it's just not for me.

I enjoyed the cover story best, because its narrator (the Barbara of the title) is a bit sparkier than the others - she's still at school, and has decided that she isn't going to sleep with any boy more than once because that makes them inclined to take advantage of her. If I heard of a Barbara the Slut, I would think she was nerdy because her name was Barbara, and that she wasn't pretty enough to be popular, so she decided to be a slut instead. I don't know what it takes to be popular, but I don't think being a slut is runner-up to being popular. The truth is that I am nerdy, and maybe it's because my name is Barbara and maybe not.

35wandering_star
Jan 24, 2016, 6:58pm Top

6. Hot Lead, Cold Iron by Ari Marmell

Enjoyable urban fantasy crossed with hardboiled detective fiction. Mick Oberon is a PI in 1930s Chicago, but as well as his detective skills he employs a little magic. One day he's contacted by the wife of a mafia don, who believes her daughter is a changeling - it's a difficult case, as either he will get tangled up in the Chicago underworld or worse still, in the Chicago otherworld that he banished himself from many years since. Definitely a fun read if you like the genre.

36Poquette
Jan 24, 2016, 7:13pm Top

Wish I had thought of your "what makes me happy" feature. Very inspiring! The "magical things" quote is right up my street.

37janemarieprice
Jan 25, 2016, 8:31pm Top

>34 wandering_star: Just reading your description of that stresses me out. But I'm glad it was enjoyable nonetheless.

38kidzdoc
Jan 26, 2016, 12:03am Top

>34 wandering_star: Oof. I think I'd rather have a root canal without anesthesia than read about the lives of useless Generation Z-ers.

39wandering_star
Jan 28, 2016, 7:05pm Top

>37 janemarieprice:, >38 kidzdoc: haha! I just don't think we're the target audience for this sort of thing....

40wandering_star
Jan 31, 2016, 4:08pm Top

7. The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan

In the prologue to this book, a woman is standing trial for her life. During a break, she leaves the court house with her lawyers, but as they scurry for shelter from the breaking thunderstorm, she stands in the rain and turns her face up to it, for it recalls for her "the tenth day in the lifeboat, when it began to rain". We don't know what it was that happened in the lifeboat which has caused her to stand trial - but her lawyers suggest she might write an account of it, which forms much of the book.

After an explosion at sea, Grace and her fellow passengers are lucky to have made it into a lifeboat. They even have one of the ship's crew on board, Mr Hardie, who understands what is needed to survive at sea, how to steer and work out which direction they are going in. But although the lifeboat is supposed to seat forty, it turns out that the ship's owners skimped on the production costs and with 39 people they are already overcrowded. Desperate, starving and afraid for their life, the people in the boat start to suspect Hardie's motivations and power gradually tips towards one of the passengers, a Mrs Grant. How does Grace - who has a history of making a strength out of her feminine weakness in order to survive - react?

At the same time, it occurred to me - and it must have occurred to Mr Hardie as well - to wonder if Rebecca was the victim of some sort of natural selection and to think that if she had fallen overboard, maybe it was for the best. This thought was followed by the idea that Hardie's dedication was to those of us in the boat, not those outside of it, however they came to be there. Then, underneath everything else came the notion, sneaking into the strongbox of my thinking like water through an uncaulked chink, that Hardie was attempting to teach us a lesson of sorts. Oh, I knew my fate was in his hands already. It was not a lesson I needed to learn.

I read this book in half a day when I had a terrible cold. It was just the right thing to be reading - gripping enough to make me forget how rough I was feeling, and not too complex a treatment of the theme, so I could manage it with my foggy brain. Unfortunately, it fell apart a bit towards the end, and I don't think the unreliable narrator quite worked - I felt that the writer hadn't really worked out where Grace fell on the line from manipulative to innocent.

41wandering_star
Jan 31, 2016, 4:12pm Top

This made me chuckle - spotted in Cambridge yesterday on the Cambridge University Press bookshop:



Given the strict warning, I only walked away with three books - one a gift, and the other two Spying For the People, about the secret service in the early years of Mao's China, and Peaceland, an ethnography of peacekeepers and international intervention in conflict resolution.

42SassyLassy
Jan 31, 2016, 6:03pm Top

Just checked out Spying for the People and Peaceland. They look like a good ones to get my mind working in those directions again.

Great sign. I wish I could see the inside of the store!

43Nickelini
Jan 31, 2016, 6:14pm Top

That's a funny sign!

44reva8
Jan 31, 2016, 7:29pm Top

>26 wandering_star: Karthika Nair is awesome, and this is a great review. I don't think I'll have the chance to see it, sadly.

45kidzdoc
Feb 1, 2016, 11:08am Top

Nice review of The Lifeboat, Margaret.

That CUP Bookshop sign is amusing!

46wandering_star
Edited: Mar 1, 2016, 9:07pm Top

Wishlisted in Feb

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon - from an author reading
Superman: Red Son - described on a podcast (Literary Disco), intriguing premise - what if Superman had landed on earth in Soviet Russia rather than the USA?
Exposure by Helen Dunmore - I loved The Siege and The Betrayal so added this to my list as soon as I heard about it

Museum bookshops are dangerous! All these were added to my list while browsing the National Maritime Museum shop:

Empires of Food: Feast, Famine and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations
City of Fortune: How Venice Won and Lost a Naval Empire
The Levelling Sea: The Story of a Cornish Haven in the Age of Sail
In These Times: Living in Britain through Napoleon's Wars
Chasing the Sun: The Epic Story of the Star That Gives us Life
Leviathan: The Rise of Britain as a World Power
The Curious Life of Robert Hooke: The Man Who Measured London

Beautiful Idiots and Brilliant Lunatics - book about London, from this review

Academic book list recommendations
The Man Awakened From Dreams
Satchmo Blows Up The World

Ten Million Aliens - from NHM bookshop

Seen in NY:
A True Novel
A Darker Shade of Magic

It's Your Ship - from training course

Acquired in Feb

Creepy Cute Crochet - a present
God's Dog by Diego Marani and The Causal Angel by Hannu Rajaniemi - charity shop trawl - Marani's New Finnish Grammar was one of my favourite books of a couple of years ago, and Rajaniemi has been on my wishlist for a while
Merchant Adventurers: The Voyage of Discovery That Transformed Tudor England by James Evans. You know the theory that we only have a finite amount of self-control? My trip to the NMM bookshop was a good example of this. After simply noting the previous seven books, I just couldn't stop myself buying this one...

47wandering_star
Feb 1, 2016, 7:59pm Top

What's making me happy this week? More theatre! This time it's Les Liaisons Dangereuses (adaptation by Christopher Hampton, which I saw in a live broadcast to the cinema.



This production (at the Donmar Warehouse) stars Janet McTeer and Dominic West and sold out almost as soon as it was announced. In desperation to see it I booked tickets for the cinema broadcast but kept on checking for returns and struck lucky enough to get a standing ticket a couple of weeks ago.

When I saw the play in the theatre I was high up and in a corner, so it was wonderful to see the close-ups in the cinema. Dominic West was a more compelling character in the cinema - perhaps because he is used to acting for the small screen? Janet McTeer was incredible both times, and the supporting cast is great too.

Seeing it twice also meant that I was able to think more about the complex dynamic between Merteuil and Valmont. I decided that for each of them, the other was unfinished business, but in different ways - for Valmont, Merteuil is a lover who he is not yet bored with, and a woman he can be himself in front of, while for Merteuil he is the opponent in a contest which does not yet have an outcome.

48wandering_star
Feb 1, 2016, 8:01pm Top

Audible members in the UK, incidentally, can get a free download of the cast reading extracts from the book, here.

49LolaWalser
Feb 1, 2016, 8:10pm Top

>49 LolaWalser:

Ohhhh, Janet McTeer, be still my heart... I like your description of their different POVs, I think it's important to understand they are not exactly "on the same page", and that this ultimately causes an unbridgeable rift. There's something very "typical man" about Valmont's misunderstanding of Merteuil, of how severely he has slighted her.

50Nickelini
Edited: Feb 1, 2016, 8:28pm Top

>47 wandering_star: -- oh, I'm so jealous! Fabulous. I read the book a couple of years ago and then watched the films "Dangerous Liaisons" with Malkovich and Close, and "Valmont" with Colin Firth and Anette Benning. It was interesting to compare the book against the two films. Both films did some very interesting things and got some things right and some wrong.

Anyway, I really appreciate your comments, and also >49 LolaWalser: (I'm pretty sure you jumped in on my Dangerous Liaisons thread back then with all sorts of great thoughts).

I'd love to see Janet McTeer on stage! (off to look up Dominic West)

51Nickelini
Feb 1, 2016, 8:31pm Top

>50 Nickelini: (off to look up Dominic West)

Okay, I've only seen one of his films, and it was a long time ago, so I'm not feeling too very embarrassed. But I see he's in the upcoming "Genius" playing Ernest Hemingway. This film stars Colin Firth, who I hear is signed to play Henry Higgens in "My Fair Lady" on Broadway. I'm watching for details and may need to book a quick trip to NYC.

52NanaCC
Feb 2, 2016, 5:12am Top

I loved Dominic West in the tv show The Wire. I had no idea he was British until he was on a talk show or awards show. Currently he is in a tv series called The Affair, which I have not seen, but have thought about.

53wandering_star
Edited: Feb 2, 2016, 3:46pm Top

>44 reva8: I'd never heard of Karthika Nair - where else have you encountered her? Am intrigued by the book of poetry but I don't think it's available here.

>49 LolaWalser: I think there's an interesting shift towards the end where V realises that M is not just teasing him and starts to become very menacing. A classic case of male entitlement? A line that got big but uneasy laughs in this scene is the one where M snarls at V that she would appreciate him taking "a less marital tone" with her.

>50 Nickelini: I haven't seen "Valmont" actually, must try and rent it (or whatever the terminology is these days). I have however seen "Dangerous Liaisons" innumerable times as it was one of only two videos I owned when I was at university - hmm, why was that? I suppose they were quite expensive at the time but it seems very odd in retrospect that whenever anyone in our four-student house had an essay crisis we'd gather in the living room and watch either this or "Thelma and Louise", my other video.

54wandering_star
Feb 2, 2016, 3:44pm Top

By the way, I have been wondering about Madame de Merteuil's age. I am guessing that despite her worldly-wise airs she's probably in her early thirties? And Valmont about ten years older?

55Nickelini
Feb 2, 2016, 6:10pm Top

>54 wandering_star: Age? Good question. I don't know, but your guess sounds right.

56cabegley
Feb 2, 2016, 10:07pm Top

I love Les Liaisons Dangereuses--lucky you!

57LolaWalser
Feb 2, 2016, 10:29pm Top

>50 Nickelini:

Ha, I should check whatever it was... I've been known to contradict myself merrily six times before breakfast! :)

>53 wandering_star:

I haven't seen or read any stage adaptations, but I expect they can't help but simplify the dynamics of the novel, the way every ecranisation so far did too.

On age, it's interesting, I have a different impression, I always thought they were contemporaries, or Merteuil likely being the older one. Early thirties for both, just about. The "unfinished business" between them I ascribed to her being the one who called the end of the affair--just a little too soon, in order to pre-empt Valmont doing so, to safeguard her pride and vanity. I don't see what else could have motivated him to set up her already enjoyed "favours" as the stake of the bet.

58wandering_star
Feb 3, 2016, 7:44pm Top

>57 LolaWalser: I think you're right about the ending of the affair. I thought Valmont must be older if his boast about sleeping with Cecile's mother was true. And of course everyone knows that men stay sexier longer than women do...

59LolaWalser
Edited: Feb 4, 2016, 1:01pm Top

>58 wandering_star:

I don't remember whether it was said how old was Cécile's mother, but isn't Cécile herself taken out of the convent at fifteen, in order to get married (to a geezer, of course)? Unless the mother's age is definitely specified, I think it's likely she was married off at a similar age, in which case she could be as young as thirty-ish or thereabouts!

As for Valmont, I took it as a given that he'd have been, um, déniaisé-d by some poor servant or prostitute pretty much out of childhood--in any case, sexually active at least from his teens.

And of course everyone knows that men stay sexier longer than women do...

Ha, yes. Another nuance to Merteuil's growing resentment of her "buddy".

60wandering_star
Feb 4, 2016, 8:02pm Top

Early for a change!

What’s making me happy this week is some extremely high quality podcasts. I have been on a lot of bus journeys this week, and burning through my huge backlog of podcasts.

Highlights have been:

Surprisingly Awesome - episode on adhesives. Surprisingly Awesome is, as the name suggests, a podcast about apparently uninteresting things which turn out to be… It’s a fairly young podcast so this is only its 7th episode. They’ve covered broccoli, concrete, and have now produced an episode which genuinely made me interested in glue - from the surprisingly big difference between standard glue and superglue (they work in a totally different way) to the amazing range of uses for modern industrial adhesives.

Maintaining the trend, the following podcasts were surprisingly interesting given the subject matter:

Switched On Pop’s Click With Dick and other campaign anthems. Click With Dick was actually the title of Richard Nixon’s campaign song, but even more mind-boggling is the fact that George HW Bush tried to have, as his campaign music, “This Land Is Your Land” by noted Republican Woody Guthrie.

99% Invisible, The Ice King - the trade in ice from New England to places as far-flung as British India and Australia.


World ice trade, 1856

The man who pioneered the trade did so after visiting the Caribbean (and presumably being much too hot). But one of the challenges was persuading people that a cold drink would be nice on a hot day...

The Longform podcast interview with Adam Platt - a standard-format interview, about a subject I’m not especially interested in (restaurant criticism), I was not expecting this to be so compelling - that it was is largely due to Platt himself and his thoughtfulness and enthusiasm about the line of work he’s found himself in.

Also, my new favourite wikipedia page is this one about Basque-Icelandic pidgin. This 17th century pidgin is known from a glossary containing around 300 words and short sentences. These include: “Give me garters!”, “I will give you a biscuit and a sour drink”, “Give me hot milk and new butter”, “Fuck you!”, “For how many socks?” and “If Christ and Mary give me a whale, I will give you the tail”.

61SassyLassy
Feb 5, 2016, 10:59am Top

Great page about the Basque-Icelandic glossary. I wonder how they translated the edict that allowed the Icelanders to kill Basques on sight?

62RidgewayGirl
Feb 5, 2016, 1:33pm Top

Surprisingly Awesome sounds good - I'll give it a listen.

63wandering_star
Feb 5, 2016, 6:02pm Top

>61 SassyLassy: Hahaha. I expect they didn't bother translating that as it would have given the Basques too much warning!

64janemarieprice
Feb 6, 2016, 7:28pm Top

>60 wandering_star: Surprisingly Awesome does sound very interesting. Concrete or reinforced concrete? Though both are pretty interesting.

65wandering_star
Feb 7, 2016, 6:59pm Top

Just ordinary concrete I think. I don't remember anything about reinforced concrete...

66wandering_star
Edited: Feb 14, 2016, 6:22pm Top

8. Three Weeks in December by Audrey Schulman

This book tells two parallel stories of Americans in Africa: Jeremy, who is building a railroad across British East Africa at the end of the nineteenth century, and Max, an ethnobiologist looking for plants of medical value in Rwanda a hundred and one years later. There are many parallels between their two stories - both of them are mistrustful of their employers (British colonialists and big pharma, respectively) and sometimes doubting the ethics of what they are doing; and they are both set apart from their societies at home by personal circumstances which are little understood by others and a cause of suspicion. Jeremy is gay, and Max is on the autism spectrum - although she finds a surprisingly positive environment working among the gorillas of Rwanda who don't get too close to each other and rarely look each other in the face, something Max is much more comfortable with than normal human interactions. Both of them in this story face a gradually encroaching danger, too - Jeremy and his team of workmen are threatened by the man-eating dragons of Tsavo, while Max and her colleagues are only a couple of days from territory controlled by a warring group similar to the Lord's Resistance Army.

The stories are not without interest, but I found the parallels a bit mechanistic. Also, I'm not a scientist so I don't know whether the way that gorillas interact is really more comfortable for autistic people than the way that neurotypical humans do; but as a lay reader, I found the idea a bit glib.

"Oh, come on." She spoke loudly enough the gorillas heard. There was a single startled cough from them and they bolted into the bushes while Titus charged toward the women, roaring. About forty feet away, he recognised them and angled off, his sheer momentum taking yards to dissipate. His gut made galumph-galumph noises like a horse when it cantered. Once he'd come to a stop, he rested his face against a tree and breathed heavily. It was his responsibility to protect his family, to charge toward possible death. ... Feeling guilty, Max shuffled out on her knees from behind the tree so they could see her and she pretend-foraged, trying to look unthreatening, until all the gorillas were eating again.

67wandering_star
Feb 14, 2016, 6:39pm Top

A few quick reviews:

9. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender

At the age of nine, Rose suddenly acquires the ability to taste, in food, the emotions of the cook. I think I wishlisted this because of LT reviews, but when the book arrived, everything about the cover screamed 'whimsical' and so it took me over a year to pick it up. The book avoids whimsy though and in fact is rather sad; most of the time, after all, we are not feeling joy, and Rose ends up knowing much more than she wants to about the relationship between her parents, or the families of her school friends. I enjoyed it.

An Iranian cafe near Ohio and Westwood had such a rich grief in the lamb shank that I could eat it all without doing any of my tricks - side of the mouth, ingredient tracking, fast-chew and swallow. Being there was like having a good cry, the clearing of the air after weight has been held. I asked the waiter if I could thank the chef, and he led me to the back, where a very ordinary-looking woman with gray hair in a practical layered cut tossed translucent onions in a fry pan and shook my hand.

68wandering_star
Edited: Feb 14, 2016, 6:57pm Top

10. The Giant, O'Brien, by Hilary Mantel, is a re-imagination of the story of Charles Byrne, a giant (at least 7'7) who was exhibited at freakshows in London, and whose skeleton is still visible at the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons in London. (This article from 2011 reports a discussion over the ethics of keeping his skeleton on display, when Byrne himself wanted to be buried at sea but the anatomist John Hunter bribed one of his friends to bring him the body for his collection).

In Mantel's version, the Giant is a thoughtful, educated man, ill-suited for the showmanship and snake oil of being displayed as a freak.

This is a re-read, and like Fludd which I re-read a couple of years ago, I'm not sure I can make much more sense of it this time around. It seemed such a bleak story and I wondered what Mantel was aiming to do with it. It only started to make sense when I came across the following line in a review: "Hilary Mantel’s works .. consistently track certain obsessions in theme and subject matter: cruelty, the uses and misuses of power, the shocks of illness and mortality, and the invasions of the spirit world." That applies exactly to this poetic book.

Hunter stepped in, and look around. "I am afraid they have sold the tea-caddy," said the Giant, "and all its contents. Or I could offer you...?"
"No matter," said the Scot.
He took a seat. "That one has a dint in the back," the Giant said.
"No matter."
"I once wept, sitting in that chair."
"For what reason?"
"I don't recall."
"Your memory fails?"
"Everything fails, sir. Reason, and harvests, and the human heart."

69wandering_star
Feb 14, 2016, 7:07pm Top

11. Blaming by Elizabeth Taylor

This is a story about a not-friendship between two women, who meet during a cruise around the Mediterranean. Martha, an American in her late thirties, attaches herself to Amy and Nick who are the other native English speakers on board. When Nick dies unexpectedly, Martha decides to leave the ship and help Amy deal with the formalities and bring her back to London, where they both live. Amy rather resents her help and even more, the fact that Martha continues to visit her and treat her as a friend and confidante when really, Amy would much rather not have to see her or to hear about her rather marginal life.

I found this an incredibly bleak story. I could sympathise with Amy's annoyance with Martha but not the painful politeness which meant that she could never be honest with Martha about how she felt. Martha too cuts a pathetic figure, never quite having enough money and never understanding anyone else in the way that she thinks she does. I'm sure it's as beautifully written as Taylor's other work, but I couldn't see past the bleakness and I won't be reading this again.

Martha took up the onyx eggs two by two and held them to her cheeks, then let them rest coolly in the palms of her hands, juggled with them. Yes, she is just like a tiresome child, Amy thought - but unlike a child, she can't be reprimanded.
"These two are the best," Martha said, having sorted them all over and laid them in a row.
"I think they are the worst," Amy said.

70wandering_star
Feb 14, 2016, 7:19pm Top

12. The Evening Chorus by Helen Humphreys

1940. James, an airman, is in a German POW camp. He distracts himself from captivity by daily, close observation of a family of redstarts nesting just outside the camp. Wanting to shelter his young wife Rose, he writes to her of the redstarts and not of his own daily routine. But Rose and he were only married for six months before he left and she finds his letters dry and his requests for research onerous. She has fallen in love with another airman, Toby; but their relationship is disturbed when James' sister asks to come and stay with Rose after she is bombed out from her home in London.

I have absolutely nothing to say about this book. The writing is neither especially good nor especially bad. None of the characters ever changes, or does anything surprising. A lot happens in the story but when you are reading it, it feels very slight. Nothing wrong with it, but I doubt I'll remember it by the end of the month.

No one knows how long the war will last, and none of the men want to lose themselves in the process. By constructing the house they used to live in or lecturing on the subjects they once taught, they are able to hold on to the memory of the men they used to be. The unspoken hope for all of them is that when the war does end, they will be able to step back into those lives and continue on as though they'd never had to leave, and as though nothing of consequence had happened to them in the war.

71rebeccanyc
Feb 15, 2016, 11:18am Top

I liked both The Giant, O'Brien and Fludd, but I haven't attempted to reread them.

72Nickelini
Feb 15, 2016, 12:00pm Top

I have The Giant O'Brien and Blaming on my tbr pile and hope to get to them this year, and I am currently reading another Helen Humphreys (Afterimage). Good to read your thoughts on all of these books and authors.

73Nickelini
Feb 15, 2016, 12:02pm Top

>70 wandering_star: I have absolutely nothing to say about this book. The writing is neither especially good nor especially bad. None of the characters ever changes, or does anything surprising. A lot happens in the story but when you are reading it, it feels very slight. Nothing wrong with it, but I doubt I'll remember it by the end of the month.

I seem to read a lot of books that this could describe. I sometimes wonder if it's me. Anyway, I think I'll save your paragraph and quote you the next time this happens to me. Which I expect will be soon (and often).

74wandering_star
Feb 15, 2016, 3:28pm Top

What's making me happy this week is the Samuel Pepys exhibition at the National Maritime Museum. I took my mum to this as she is a big fan of Pepys, and I thought it would be quite dry.

But how could that be when, after all, he lived through the execution of one king, the return of another and the ousting of a third? Sometimes when the story of history is very familiar, it's hard to understand how earth-shaking it was when it happened, and this exhibition did a good job of explaining that.

The exhibition curator also has a nice eye for the interesting snippet, so I learnt that Pepys buried his Parmesan cheese in the garden to protect it from the Great Fire of London, that he stayed up till 2 am reading Hooke's Micrographia, with its unprecedented illustrations of tiny animals such as fleas and lice, and that he wrote in his diary that he didn't always understand the scientific discussions at the Royal Society (where he was president).

Perhaps my favourite fact was that the Royal Society couldn't publish Newton's Principia Mathematica because it had spent all its money on Willughby's natural history of fish. Halley (of comet fame) paid, and was repaid in unsold copies of the fish book.

75detailmuse
Feb 22, 2016, 5:49pm Top

I'm excited to give the "Surprising Awesome" podcast a try. I've also wishlisted Blaming, I've been looking for another by Taylor after Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont, but may wait until I'm ready(ier) for bleak.

76wandering_star
Mar 1, 2016, 4:22pm Top

13. The Great Night by Chris Adrian

This story draws on A Midsummer Night's Dream, relocating the action to Buena Vista Park in San Francisco. After a quarrel with Titania, Oberon has left, and desperate to get him back, she puts the whole of their fairyland in danger. A magical forcefield around the park traps a number of humans - three heartbroken lovers, and a group of homeless people.

Titania sat alone for a while on her bier, listening to the shrieks of her subjects as they hithered and thithered all over the park. She was also afraid, but all her long life she had only run screaming toward things, and not away from them. She was not quite sure if it had been a mistake to release Puck, but she was entertaining the possibility. It had not really made her feel better to do it, but she did feel different.

I love the idea, but unfortunately the story was neither magical nor moving enough. The theme seems to be grief; but despite the fact that a great number of the characters in the book are feeling grief, this is a very emotionless telling.

77wandering_star
Mar 1, 2016, 5:29pm Top

And now for what's making me happy - these two weeks, as it's been a while since I updated.

Two weeks ago, what was making me happy was a long weekend in New York! We stayed in the Library Hotel on Madison & 41st, near to the NY Public Library and on "Library Way", which is two blocks with lovely book-themed plaques inset into the pavement:







The hotel itself is library-themed, so for example the rooms are decorated according to dewey decimal numbers. We were in the "Libraries" room which had a couple of shelves of books on that subject, including Re-readings, Quiet Please, Why I Read and many others that I enjoyed dipping into. But more important than the theme is that it was a hotel that did everything well, with clean, comfortable rooms, good soundproofing, a good breakfast, and a location which meant that we could walk to pretty much anywhere.

If I had to pick out one of the many things we did as a particular highlight, it would probably be the exhibition of Kamakura-era Japanese buddhist statues on at the Asia Society. The sculptures are beautiful, and there are several types of Buddha images that I haven't seen before, such as a wrathful incarnation of the Buddha, and one that you would pray to in order to get the approval of others.

I was particularly interested in this Buddha statue, exhibited with all the things which were found inside it - including two miniature bronzes of famous sculptures with miraculous powers, placed inside this sculpture's head to transfer their power into it; and thousands of slips of paper with images on, often also with the names of donors who thus had a karmic bond with the sculpture.

78detailmuse
Mar 1, 2016, 5:40pm Top

The third plaque makes me want to read something by Lucille Clifton.

Good to read your positive review of The Library Hotel and fascinated by the Buddha contents.

79wandering_star
Mar 1, 2016, 5:42pm Top

As for last week, what was making me happy was a trip to Secret Cinema. I've been wanting to go to one of their events for years, but it turns out that I'd never realised quite how much goes into a Secret Cinema experience. What I knew was that you don't know in advance what the film will be, but you are told how you should dress up, which gives a clue about what you'll be watching (for example, jumpsuits for a screening of the Shawshank Redemption). But I hadn't realised that it's not just a screening, but a whole immersive experience. We arrived at a warehouse which was, inside, a giant set, with action going on in different places; and had the choice of taking part in a series of challenges (eg finding out certain pieces of information by talking to some of the actors), watching some of the action, or just going to the bar with your friends. Great fun.

80wandering_star
Mar 1, 2016, 5:52pm Top

>78 detailmuse: Yes! The Lucille Clifton was my favourite one.

81wandering_star
Mar 8, 2016, 8:49am Top

After a couple of weeks where I haven't been able to finish any books, finally I completed 14. The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff.

At the start of this book, Willie Upton is on her way back to her hometown of Templeton, pregnant by her married lover, eyes swollen from crying, hair tufty after she shaved her head in solidarity with her dying best friend. Despite this, the book's actually quite a light read. To get Willie out of her depressive listlessness, her mother sets her a challenge - revealing that Willie's father, rather than being an unknown San Franciscan, is in fact one of the residents of Templeton, and giving Willie a clue or two to start the process of working out who he is. We then get the narrative of Willie putting her life back together interspersed with the diaries and letters of her ancestors which she is reading, along with some narratives by her ancestors which I guess she isn't.

I had mixed feelings about this book. I liked its ambition, the town of Templeton and the affection Groff has for her characters. I also found it a bit too whimsical and contrived in places, and I couldn't really get on with Willie, who is a bit hopeless.

That morning, before I drew my hand away from the monster, I felt an overwhelming sadness, a sudden memory of one time in high school when I slipped to the country club docks at midnight with my friends, and, giggling, naked, we went into the dark star-stippled water, and swam to the middle of the lake. We treaded water there in the blackness, all of us fallen silent in the feeling of swimming in such perfect space.

82wandering_star
Mar 8, 2016, 8:57am Top

What's making me happy this week is Marc Maron's podcast interview with Ian McKellen, recorded last summer. I'm not actually a big fan of the podcast - called "WTF With Marc Maron" - as I think you get much too much Marc Maron and I'm usually more keen to hear from the guests. But I went to download the Marc Maron interview with President Obama (which I haven't listened to yet) and thought that this might be interested - and Ian McKellen is so charming and interesting!

83wandering_star
Mar 10, 2016, 6:17pm Top

The longlist for the Man Booker International Prize has been announced. I haven't read any of the books but have read (and love) a couple of the authors - Agualusa and Ferrante. It's a nice touch too that half the prize money goes to the author and half to the translator.

José Eduardo Agualusa (Angola) - A General Theory of Oblivion
Elena Ferrante (Italy) - The Story of the Lost Child
Han Kang (South Korea) - The Vegetarian
Maylis de Kerangal (France) - Mend the Living
Eka Kurniawan (Indonesia) - Man Tiger
Yan Lianke (China) - The Four Books
Fiston Mwanza Mujila (Democratic Republic of Congo/Austria) - Tram 83
Raduan Nassar (Brazil) - A Cup of Rage
Marie NDiaye (France) - Ladivine
Kenzaburō Ōe (Japan) - Death by Water
Aki Ollikainen (Finland) - White Hunger
Orhan Pamuk (Turkey) - A Strangeness in My Mind
Robert Seethaler (Austria) - A Whole Life

84SassyLassy
Mar 10, 2016, 7:27pm Top

Thanks for posting the list. The Agulusa and Ollikainen would probably be my first choices to read. That is a great idea that half the prize goes to the translator.

85FlorenceArt
Mar 11, 2016, 2:23am Top

I haven't read a single one of these books, but I suppose that's OK since they are recent. But I also haven't read anything by these authors, except Orhan Pamuk. I have heard about a few of them, does that count? Sigh. Life is too short.

86lilisin
Mar 11, 2016, 2:48am Top

>83 wandering_star:

I was surprised to see Oe's name on the list but only because I keep thinking he's dead. (Although at 81, this could be one of his last books, perhaps.) I need to check if I'm at the level to read him in Japanese although I do like him in translation.

87thorold
Mar 14, 2016, 6:26am Top

Maybe they'll give it to Ferrante, just to provoke all those journalists who are trying to break her anonymity.
Oe and Pamuk are probably just there for decoration: surely they won't waste the prize by giving it to someone who's already been to Stockholm (although the 50% for the translator might play a role there).

I've had one of Ferrante's books on the go as Italian practice for several months, but keep setting it aside to read other things. It's good, but at the present rate of progress it will be another decade before I get to the latest one...
The Seethaler book looks interesting: if I had to pick one to read, that's probably the one I'd go for.

88rebeccanyc
Mar 14, 2016, 4:14pm Top

Thanks for posting the list. I'll have to investigate a lot of them. And adding my appreciation for the translator sharing in the prize money.

89wandering_star
Mar 15, 2016, 9:15pm Top

15. The Rights of the Reader by Daniel Pennac

If we had to think of love in terms of our busy schedule, who'd risk it? Who's got time to fall in love? But have you ever seen someone in love not finding time for it?

I've never had time to read, but nothing's ever stopped me from finishing a novel I loved.


This is a book from the perspective of someone who loves to read, but is sympathetic to those young people who don't enjoy it. His belief is that if teenagers don't like to read, it's because reading has become a chore - something that they believe they'll be tested on, that others will pontificate about, that they will need to study. They have forgotten - or been trained away from - the idea that the book is first and foremost a story, in which they can lose themselves. Pennac argues that the first seeds of wanting to read are sown when a parent reads to a child at bedtime - and that if we want to encourage others to read, we need to take them back to this desire to be told a story.

There is a wonderful scene where a teacher (presumably Pennac himself) sits in front of a new class of, ahem, less academically-inclined pupils, who roll their eyes at him sceptically when he says he will read aloud to them - until he starts to do so (the book is Patrick Suskind's Perfume, which grips them immediately).

I'm not particularly interested in the question of teenagers and reading, and sometimes I found this book a little bitty, but overall it's quite a charming and light read.

90bragan
Mar 17, 2016, 12:27pm Top

>89 wandering_star: I have this one on my TBR shelves, and am looking forward to it. I love that quote.

91wandering_star
Mar 18, 2016, 9:31am Top

16. The Means of Escape by Penelope Fitzgerald

This is a book of ten short stories, often very short. Most of them are about someone who is in some way out of place, or about encounters between people of very different backgrounds - a Greek Londoner visiting his family in Istanbul for example, or a farmer's boy unexpectedly being invited in to the manor house.

Like Fitzgerald's novels, it would be easy to read these stories quickly and dismiss them as being slight - but if you can slow your pace right down and concentrate on every word, tremendous subtleties and depths emerge. Often in these stories there is a change of tone which could wrong-foot the careless reader. In "The Red-Haired Girl", for example, a young dilettante English artist spends some time in a French seaside village which turns out to be nowhere near as picturesque as he had expected. It seems like a humorous story until the last paragraph shows how his presence has changed the aspiration of the local girl who he asks to be his painting model. "The Axe" starts off as a workplace satire and becomes a genuinely chilling ghost story. The longest story, "Our lives are only lent to us", could be taken as a fish-out-of-water story about a group of expats in a Central American country, but gives a lot of food for thought.

None of the native inhabitants of San Tomas de las Ollas saved any money and this was a moral imperative, although it worked differently from ours. We would think it a sign of respectability to 'put by' now so as not to be an encumbrance to our relatives later. We wouldn't wish to be a burden to our folks. Mrs Clancy put it this way at the get-together, the chicken-fry, which she, as the wife of the representative of the local manager of Providence Williams Marketing (Central American Division) gave from time to time in the American and European community; and in this she showed herself a sympathetic hostess because all the community were much occupied with assurance and its twin sister death, but the native inhabitants, although they too thought about death, had little interest in either saving or assurance.

My favourite story was probably "At Hiruharama" - hear AS Byatt read it here.

92wandering_star
Edited: Mar 18, 2016, 2:20pm Top

Once again, I have two weeks' of what's making me happy to catch up on...

Last week, it was London Zoo! I've never been, even when I was little, and have been wanting to go for years. I took the opportunity of borrowing a friend's child to go at last, and we had a great time. In fact I think anyone who wasn't against the whole principle of zoos would enjoy themselves. We saw the penguins being fed, zooming around in the water and 'porpoising' (swimming so fast they jump out of the water) in sheer excitement, admired the two baby gorillas (one a couple of months old and the other two years), and learnt many fascinating facts - giraffes have prehensile tongues, otters can juggle (they do it with small stones) and lemurs enjoy sunbathing.





The giraffes incidentally are the only animals who live in the accommodation originally designed for them by the zoo's architect, Decimus Burton - in 1836.

This week, it was a gig by the French artist Christine and the Queens, at one of my favourite venues in London, the former theatre Koko. She's been a star in France for some years and has recently re-released an album with some English lyrics, but a huge part of the crowd were French and sang along when the lyrics were in French. At the same time, the singer lived in London for a while (the Queens of the band title are a group of drag queens from Madame JoJos who befriended her and drew her out of the depression she was suffering) so she was chatting and bantering with the crowd in English.

The music is electro-pop - my two favourite songs are Saint Claude (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZzFYmz2lfT4) and Paradis Perdus (https://youtu.be/PPjazi4mQSQ).

93baswood
Mar 18, 2016, 5:28pm Top

Enjoyed Paris Perdus

94wandering_star
Edited: Mar 27, 2016, 4:42am Top

17. Among Others by Jo Walton

This is the fifth book I've read by Jo Walton and the third completely new style. The first four were the Small Change trilogy (Golden Age-style detective stories set in a world where Britain sided with Nazi Germany) and Tooth and Claw, a fun and charming re-imagining of a Trollope story but with dragons.

Among Others is really a coming-of-age story. Fifteen-year-old Mor has run away from her mother, following an incident in which her twin sister died. The authorities have found her and put her into the care of the father she hasn't seen since she was a tiny baby. Sent to a posh English school, she misses her friends in the South Wales valleys and worries about the rest of her family there too. She finds some escape by burying herself in fantasy and science fiction, but the question is whether she will find enough in this world to help her to come to terms with her grief.

There is a fantastical element, because this is a world with magic, and faeries, and some of the threat is magical too. But in this world, magic is hard to be certain of - if a spell is cast successfully, the desired outcome happens as the result of a series of coincidences. I like this idea of magic but it also adds a further twist to the story, as the reader can either believe in Mor's powers or see this as a further element of her disconnection from the world.

I particularly enjoyed Mor's voice, down-to-earth but very believeable as a thoughtful, bookish, lonely teenager. A real love of South Wales (where Walton was born) also comes through. There is a description of one place where Mor and her sister liked to play, an overgrown place with wonderful green tunnels, smaller than a road but large enough for a girl - it turns out to be a post-industrial landscape, the ruins of an ironworks and the tracks left behind by a tram. The book wonderfully describes this as "We thought we were living in a fantasy landscape when actually we were living in a science fictional one".

Looking back on the story after finishing it, I had some questions about how it all fitted together, but it may be that next time I read it I'll see the clues.

I sat on the bench by the willows and ate my honey bun and read Triton. There are some awful things in the world, it’s true, but there are also some great books. When I grow up I would like to write something that someone could read sitting on a bench on a day that isn’t all that warm and they could sit reading it and totally forget where they were or what time it was so that they were more inside the book than inside their own head. I’d like to write like Delany or Heinlein or Le Guin.

95AnnieMod
Mar 23, 2016, 8:32pm Top

>94 wandering_star: Or as I call it "Walton's love letter to the genre and its readers" :) Wonderful review.

96wandering_star
Edited: Mar 27, 2016, 5:21am Top

18. How To Be Both by Ali Smith

I first tried to read this about a year ago, and simply couldn't get more than a couple of pages into it. Fortunately, however, my copy is an ebook so instead of being despatched to the charity shop it stayed on my Kindle. Since then I have learnt about the format of the book - it's two interlocking stories which can be read in either order (in the physical books there are copies in which "Eyes" comes first and some in which "Camera" comes first). An excellent LT review (can't remember whose) put the book back on my wishlist and finally I have tried again. I am so glad that I did - this was a wonderful read. I think maybe the last time I read it I had too much else going on and wasn't able to dedicate the mental space which the book needed.

In my ebook, "Eyes" came first. It starts with a spirit being dragged from the afterlife into a room in the modern world. The spirit is that of an Italian Renaissance artist, and it first becomes conscious inside a room in the National Gallery in London, where it realises it is looking at one of its own paintings, which in turn is being looked at by a beautiful woman.



The spirit notices a boy staring at the woman, and when she leaves the boy follows her - and the spirit (involuntarily) is pulled along with the boy. We then hear the artist's story, with occasional descriptions of what the boy is doing - although it turns out fairly soon that the boy is actually a short-haired girl, Georgia or George - just as it turns out that the artist is actually a woman disguised as a man, as that was the only way that she could use her talents at that time. We see her growing up and developing her art, and the main focus is her work on the frescoes of the Palazzo Schifanoia, the palace of not being bored.



"Camera" begins at the very start of 2013 - an hour or so after midnight. It's a few months after George's mother died, and George is dealing with her own grief and loss while looking after her younger brother as her father slides into alcoholism. George remembers times that she spent with her mother, and develops rituals of remembrance to try and keep her mother close to her. One of her memories is of a trip with her mother to see the frescoes, which are in a part of Italy which had been hit by a large earthquake.

There are many themes which echo between the two parts - grief and remembrance, inhumanity and standing up to it, and human complexities (not one or other, but both). I am glad that I read them in this order. The George parts in "Eyes" take place after the end of "Camera", so I liked the feeling of gradually understanding what was actually happening in the events described by the artist; and it was good to have heard about the frescoes in detail before reading about the impact that they had on the modern-day visitors. It's a book that makes you think, both in its style and structure, and in its content. After finishing it I flicked through "Eyes" once more to pick up some of the echoes, and I feel like I could carry on reading it - Eyes, Camera, Eyes, Camera and so on - and pick out something new every time.

We need both luck and justice to get to live the life we're meant for, she says. Lots of seeds don't get to. Think. They fall on stone, they get crushed to pieces, rot in the rubbish at the roadside, put down roots that don't take, die of thirst, die of heat, die of cold before they've even broken open underground, never mind grown a leaf. But a tree is a clever creation and sends out lots of seeds every year, so for all those ones that don't get to grow there are hundreds, thousands that will.

97Nickelini
Mar 27, 2016, 12:57pm Top

>96 wandering_star: That sounds so interesting! I heard an interview with the author that made me want to read this too. One day . . .

98wandering_star
Edited: Mar 27, 2016, 8:17pm Top

What's making me happy this week? It's been a bit of a strange week for me as I will be moving back to Asia at the end of this month, so I've been wrapping up all my admin and trying to spend as much time seeing friends and family as possible. While I have squeezed in a few 'pop culture experiences' including a fun night with Darryl (kidzdoc) watching Florian Zeller's The Truth at the Menier Chocolate Factory, the thing that made me most happy this week was looking through old family photo albums with my mum, and getting her to have a good old reminisce. Highly recommended!

99MsLdnReads
Mar 28, 2016, 5:03am Top

Lovely review of How To Be Both. That book was one of my favourites from last year, and Ali Smith is my favourite living novelist. Completely agree that a reread would offer even more - after reading your review I plan to reread it later this year.

100wandering_star
Edited: Mar 29, 2016, 5:31pm Top

Ughghghghg. I am supposed to be reading The King Never Smiles before I move to Thailand, where it is banned. But it is a bit of a brick, and progress is slow. So instead I pinched 19. Traitor's Purse by Margery Allingham from my mum. She had bought it after reading this article in which AS Byatt describes it as her favourite detective story.

It is 1940. A man wakes up in a hospital bed, with no memory of who he is, but a sense that he must do something urgently to avert impending doom. Overhearing a conversation in the corridor, he realises that he is under guard on suspicion of having killed a police officer - and that if he stays under guard he'll never be able to do whatever it is that he's supposed to be doing. So he makes a daring escape, and gradually begins to piece together the backstory - all the while trying to keep it secret that he has no memory. So, for example, at one point the local police superintendent turns to him and says, "Here you are. I've risked my warrant to get us in and I hope you'll forgive me if I say for God's sake get whatever you have to do done as soon as possible, so we can get out before the light. I don't like to think what would happen if we got caught."

Great fun, both for the thrilling-ness of the story and for Allingham's sharpish eye for British society ("Money? More money? This cash motif cropped up all the time. It frightened Campion. The Tory Englishman never under-estimates the power of money as a weapon. It is his own, and when he sees it against him he feels betrayed as well as anxious.")

However, by the time this book was written, Allingham's readers had been getting to know Campion for some twenty years, and I think that some of the enjoyment of the book is meant to be in seeing Campion behaving in unusual ways. So I've sent my mum off to read a couple of earlier books in the series before she gets into this one.

101detailmuse
Mar 29, 2016, 1:52pm Top

>100 wandering_star: I am supposed to be reading The King Never Smiles before I move to Thailand, where it is banned.
I can see it would be sensitive. But banned isn't on my radar. I'd need some pretty good orientation materials before heading to some countries to remind me that freedoms aren't global.

102lilisin
Mar 29, 2016, 11:27pm Top

Moving to Thailand!

I thought you were going to be staying in England a lot longer than you have. Well, now you're closer to me again so maybe I can come visit you. I've been wanting to revisit Thailand and this time head down to its beaches.

When is the moving date?

103wandering_star
Mar 30, 2016, 3:27pm Top

Friday! :-0

Yes, do come and visit!

>101 detailmuse: you're right, I should be more diligent. I am thinking about getting it for my kindle as I certainly won't finish it before I have to return it to its owner.

104wandering_star
Edited: Apr 1, 2016, 10:56am Top

What's making me happy this week?

As I've been packing up I've been listening to the radio a lot, at unusual times of day. This led me to discover that, somehow, I had unsubscribed myself from the podcast feed which includes the BBC Radio 4 show A Good Read.

It's a simple format - two people and the show's host each recommend a book which they think is a good read, and then discuss and comment on the choices. It's great when everyone enthusiastically enjoys one of the choices (recently with Marian Keyes' choice of The Poisonwood Bible), and just as interesting when they disagree strongly.

I promptly downloaded not just the backlog, but even the ones I'd previously heard, and have been binge-listening for the rest of the week.

(Incidentally if you want to subscribe to the podcast, this show is bundled together with another show called 'Open Book' - the podcast is called Books and Authors.)

105Nickelini
Apr 1, 2016, 11:45am Top

>104 wandering_star: Thanks for pointing that out. Always looking for a good podcast. Last summer while I stained my deck I binge-listened to the Slate Audio Book Club. You might want to check them out too.

106wandering_star
Apr 1, 2016, 4:53pm Top

Thanks! I will.

107wandering_star
Edited: Apr 10, 2016, 7:20am Top

To accompany my travels I picked a story of travel between continents, 20. Landfalls by Naomi J Williams.

Landfalls is based on the story of the real Lapérouse expedition, which set out from France in 1785 with the aim of discovery and scientific exploration in the Pacific. The ships were last seen when they left Botany Bay in March 1788.

Each chapter tells a story related to one of the land stops on the voyage, from Tenerife to Chile and California to Macau. They are told from a range of different viewpoints, including participants in the voyage, the European colonists who meet the travellers, and some of the native communities that they encounter. They are also written in different styles, for example the one from California is a set of extracts from letters by different people describing the same events. In a way it’s more of a book of linked short stories, as most of the chapters could stand on their own.

The only other book I can think of which has this sort of format - linked short stories featuring the same cast of characters over a great distance of space and time - is Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad, which I think was much more successful than Landfalls. I think for a book like this needs to work there needs to be some sort of unifying factor - either a couple of main characters who keep appearing, or a theme which can bind all the disparate parts together.

In Landfalls the overarching theme is that of how history is made - the assumptions that go into it, and the chanciness of the information which is passed along. It’s a particular person’s viewpoint which leaves out some of the facts, or there are events and discoveries which never become part of history because they are never transmitted - like the ultimate fate of the Lapérouse expedition. It’s quite an interesting theme, but a bit too bloodless to work as the factor which unifies the stories - unlike A Visit From The Goon Squad where the theme was the depredations of the passage of time on all of us.

Unfortunately, too, there were lots of trails laid in earlier stories which never went anywhere - for example, in the prologue there is a very clever description of the different approaches of the two ships’ captains:

The men had other questions too, questions that had gone unanswered: Where is this expedition going? For what purpose? And for how long? But this time, the captain of the Boussole, Jean-François de Galaup de Lapérouse, called down from the quarterdeck: “It’s an English galley stove. A gift from the minister of marine.” He laughed while the men grumbled about bringing English contrivances aboard, then instructed the head carpenter to keep an eye on the installation. “Make sure that locksmith doesn’t damage my ship,” he said.

The captain of the Astrolabe, Paul-Antoine-Marie Fleuriot, Viscount de Langle, didn’t laugh. He clambered down from the quarterdeck, signaled wordlessly to his own head carpenter to join him, and followed the locksmith and the stove parts as they made their laborious way below. He endured the locksmith’s epithet-laced bundling for two hours before dismissing the man and overseeing the rest of the installation himself.


I thought that this was a foreshadowing of a tension between the two men which would develop over the course of the story. It wasn’t, and this and other similar threads which dropped away left me feeling a little bit disappointed overall, in an idea which had great potential.

108wandering_star
Apr 10, 2016, 7:22am Top

21. Vinland Saga 1 by Makoto Yukimura

One of this month's TIOLI challenges is to read a manga. I picked this one because I am quite interested in Vikings and I thought it would be fun to see what a Japanese manga artist made of a Viking story.

The first chapter was the story of a fight - a group of Vikings raiding a Frankish village - and I expected the story to continue with one battle scene after another. But in fact it developed into a much more interesting and complex story.

A young boy, Thorfinn, who acts as a scout in the Viking gang, is one of the most ferocious fighters, and it turns out that he has fought so hard in order to win the right to challenge the leader of the gang to a duel. He loses, and it turns out that's the sixth time he's challenged the leader and lost.

The rest of the story explains why he is so driven to challenge the leader. Thorfinn grew up in a small village in Greenland which has known only peace for a decade or more. But one day, a group of warriors arrive and summon his father, who turns out to have been one of the greatest Viking warriors ever known but who became sickened by the violence of his life. There is a great sequence where the young men of the village get very excited by the thought of fighting, plunder and making a name for themselves, and the old men start reminiscing about their time in battle, while Thorfinn's father looks on in helpless horror.

The rest of this volume is about what happens to Thorfinn's father and why the boy swears revenge. I really enjoyed this and have now bought the second instalment.

109kidzdoc
Edited: Apr 18, 2016, 8:34am Top

Hi, Margaret! I'm glad that we were able to meet up before you left for Thailand.

Did you see this article about Florian Zeller in The New York Times? He currently has a show on Broadway in addition to The Truth, the play we saw.

The Next Playwright to Know? Florian Zeller, From France to Broadway in a Big, Busy Leap

110wandering_star
Apr 24, 2016, 6:38am Top

>109 kidzdoc: thanks for sharing that Darryl - interesting article.

22. The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vásquez

A couple of years ago, Antonio Yammara was injured in a drive-by shooting in which an acquaintance, Ricardo Laverde, was killed. He's recovered physically, but psychologically can't let it go. In trying to understand what was behind the shooting, he comes into contact with Laverde's daughter, who is equally obsessive about trying to understand her parents' story - she only discovered that her father was still alive in the last months of his life.

This is a book about the impact of trauma - on individuals and their relationships, but also on countries - the backdrop is Colombia's descent into a narco-state, and one of the tensions in Antonio's relationship with his girlfriend is that she grew up away from Colombia and therefore still has an underlying innocence which is lost to those who lived through those times and who had to make decisions in order to keep living there.

That’s what I’d like to know, how many left my city feeling in one way or another that they were saving themselves, and how many felt that by saving themselves they were betraying something, turning into proverbial rats fleeing the proverbial ship by the act of fleeing the city in flames.

The most powerful thing I take away from this book is the sense of a loss of innocence - told most clearly through the story of Laverde's wife, initially a Peace Corps volunteer with great dreams of what she could do to help the people of Colombia - but actually this is something which pervades the book. Perhaps that's one of the things falling, of the title.

There is some very nice writing in this and the themes are interesting, but I didn't love it. That may have something to do with my state of mind - it's been very busy settling into the new job, and I've ditched a couple of previous books which weren't working for me. I have another book by Vásquez on my Kindle and will make sure I have a bit more mental space before reading that one.

111wandering_star
Apr 24, 2016, 11:57am Top

I've missed a couple of weeks of my what's making me happy posts. This is mainly because I've been concentrating on getting my head round the new job - the evenings have largely consisted of crashing on the sofa or heading out to buy a hoover or whatever else I've realised I need. However, I'd say what made me happy my first week was not being cold! (it's been a long winter in the UK),;my second week was discovering the BBC store (www.bbcstore.com) which means that I can still watch some BBC shows despite being overseas; and this week it was a Norwegian TV show called Occupied (available on Netflix in the US, I believe, but not the UK - I got it on DVD) which is excellent. The premise is that in a near future Europe suffering from an energy crisis, a new Norwegian government decides to stop drilling for oil and gas and to use clean energy instead. This leads the EU to encourage a 'soft' Russian invasion - 'soft' because to all external signs the Norwegian government stays in place, but for a new energy policy and a lot of Russian soldiers on the oil installations. But it doesn't go quite as smoothly as planned - in the second episode, for example, a Norwegian soldier attempts to assassinate the Russian ambassador, leading to a certain escalation of the Russian presence in Norway. Really good - a political thriller which is gripping both for the politics and for the thrilling parts.

112baswood
Apr 26, 2016, 5:13pm Top

I enjoyed The Sound of things Falling more than The Informers Vasquez if that is the other book that you have on your kindle

Thanks for alerting us to the BBC Store.

113wandering_star
Apr 26, 2016, 8:07pm Top

>112 baswood: Yes, that's the one!

114kidzdoc
Apr 26, 2016, 11:01pm Top

I'm sorry that you didn't like The Sound of Things Falling, Margaret.

115valkyrdeath
Apr 27, 2016, 5:28pm Top

I have The Informers on my Kindle too and was planning on getting to it fairly soon. From what I'm hearing in general though, I'm not sure I'm going to like it. I've never read The Sound of Things Falling so have no experience of Vasquez.

116wandering_star
Apr 27, 2016, 8:05pm Top

>114 kidzdoc: I didn't dislike it! I thought it was very interesting - it just didn't quite carry me away.

117wandering_star
Apr 28, 2016, 7:39pm Top

I've just seen the news that Jenny Diski has died. Her novels could be quite challenging but I am a big fan of her essay/memoir books - On Trying To Keep Still and Strangers On A Train in particular.

The London Review of Books has put her entire archive of writing for them outside their paywall: http://www.lrb.co.uk/contributors/jenny-diski

118kidzdoc
Apr 28, 2016, 9:07pm Top

>116 wandering_star: Ah. I did like The Sound of Things Falling, The Informers, and The Secret History of Costaguana, but I didn't think any of those books by Juan Gabriel Vásquez were outstanding.

119wandering_star
May 2, 2016, 11:20am Top

23. Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

Four nameless scientists have been sent into Area X. They are, they believe, the twelfth expedition to visit the mysterious area. But not all of them seem to have received the same briefing, and in any case whatever they have been told does nothing to prepare them for what they actually experience there.

This book did an incredible job of creating a sense of the uncanny - a very threatening uncanny, which combines with the bureaucratic threat from the expedition's distant masters to be very unsettling to the reader.

If you looked out through these areas, toward the ocean, all you saw was the black water, the gray of the cypress trunks, and the constant, motionless rain of moss flowing down. All you heard was the low moaning. The effect of this cannot be understood without being there. The beauty of it cannot be understood, either, and when you see beauty in desolation it changes something inside you. Desolation tries to colonize you.

Unfortunately, with such an effective set-up, almost any denouement would be disappointing, and perhaps to avoid this VanderMeer has almost no denouement at all. As things became stranger and less comprehensible, all the uncanniness and threat dissipated and I ended up not being very interested in the book at all.

120wandering_star
Edited: May 2, 2016, 11:40am Top

22* and 25, Vinland Saga Omnibuses 2 & 3 by Makoto Yukimura

Somehow I missed reviewing the second book in the Vinland Saga, which I read straight away after the first one.

These books tell the story of Thorfinn's apprenticeship as a warrior, with a Viking band ravaging England and fighting other Vikings as well as the English - there are rival bands within the Danegeld, fighting for their political masters or personal political gain. All the while, Thorfinn is learning about his father's history and preparing to take revenge on the man who killed his father.



I enjoyed the backstory of the main characters, which was prominent in Vol 2. The whole first half of Vol 3 consisted of a series of battles, which was much less appealing, although it got back on track in the second half with an interesting storyline about the future King Cnut, portrayed here as an inexperienced, weak youngster whose strong Christian faith eventually leads him to impose his authority on the Viking bands in order to stop all the pointless bloodshed.

121wandering_star
May 2, 2016, 11:49am Top

As for what's making me happy this week, I'm surprised that I haven't talked before about the Real Food Podcast , a podcast from India about food, Indian and international. My absolute favourite of their episodes so far has been about honey - why it's rarely used in Indian cooking, what kinds of flavours honey from Indian bees might have, and all sorts of other interesting things. This week I listened to a good recent podcast about India Pale Ale - fun to hear the well-known story from an Indian point of view, but also to hear about a beer aficionado who conducted an experiment to see whether the long sea voyage really did mellow the beer - it turns out that it did, and the original IPAs were much smoother and more complex than the popular, heavily hopped beers we know now.

122detailmuse
May 2, 2016, 2:59pm Top

>77 wandering_star: a follow-up -- I decided to buy The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton during national poetry month (April) and just got it now because it had a surge (yay) and was out of stock part of the month. Really looking forward to it, thanks for posting about her.

123wandering_star
May 4, 2016, 10:55am Top

>122 detailmuse: - oh great - I'd love to hear how you enjoy it!

124wandering_star
Edited: May 8, 2016, 4:11am Top

26. One by One in the Darkness by Deirdre Madden

Finally! A book that I have really enjoyed. It feels like such a long time since the last one... (in addition to the books I've reviewed, there have been quite a lot in the last few weeks that I haven't managed to finish).

This is the story of three sisters from Northern Ireland, Kate/Cate (she changed her name when she moved to England), Helen and Sally. The novel alternates between two time periods - a contemporary one, ie mid-1990s when the book was published, and the sisters' childhood which coincided with the growth of unrest and the start of the Troubles. The contemporary story takes place over a single week, a week in which Cate has gone home for a visit and to tell her family that she has fallen pregnant. It's also two years since the girls' father was shot - most likely in a case of mistaken identity, as he was shot in the kitchen of his brother, a member of Sinn Fein.

Of course, the Troubles play a large part in this book - with a particular focus on how they divided opinion within the Catholic community, and how opinions changed or became more entrenched as the protests turned to violence and the British army presence became an increasingly oppressive force. But for me the main themes of the book were how we understand our history - our own personal history, and that of our family and our country - and the meaning of home and belonging.

She saw signposts for places which had once held no particular significance but whose names were now tainted by the memory of things which had been done there: Claudy, Enniskillen, Ballykelly. She drove and drove and drove under grey skies and soft clouds. The towns and fields slipped past her until she felt that she was watching a film, and then she realised that if she had been asked to pick a single word to sum up her feelings towards Northern Ireland she would be at a complete loss, so much so that she didn't even know whether a negative or a positive word would have been more apt.

125rebeccanyc
May 4, 2016, 12:17pm Top

I read another book by Deirdre Madden, Time Present and Time Past, and really enjoyed it, so much that I bought another book by her, The Birds of the Innocent Wood, which has been languishing on my TBR. Thanks for reminding me about her.

126wandering_star
May 8, 2016, 4:20am Top

Leaving Pittsburgh, Randolph kept his face at the window of his sleeping car as it rolled down through the ordered farms whose crops covered the low hills like squares in a quilt, through modern towns and their scrubbed and turreted brick stations, their electric streetcar lines, their corn-rows of automobiles parked in front of stores burgeoning with anything an American could want. His efficient eye noted the just-built macadam roads, and he imagined a view of the region from an aeroplane, the new avenues spidering out to highways and turnpikes, webs of pavement binding tight the prospering soil.

He changed trains in Richmond, boarding an older coach furnished with plush seats and varnished wood worn to a satin finish, and then watched the night country fly by as the station buildings became smaller and more decrepit, the roads behind them now made of graded gravel. The next day further south he changed trains again and saw gaunt men standing in the fields as if sunstruck, their clothes a sagging second skin of denim and copper rivets, their tobacco crops bug-bitten and jaundiced in the heat. Here were no stone houses at all, no paved thoroughfares, and only a few factory smokestacks divided the horizon. Randolph wondered if the sun-blistered barns of Georgia could offer some clue to his brother’s wanderings. Why this direction, he kept asking himself. Away from money, and from people like him? He stared out at this strange country, the South, at the dark heat, and the used-up, coppery soil scratched over by mules.


Louisiana, 1923. Randolph Aldridge takes over a remote sawmill, in a cypress forest surrounded by swamp. It's not just the quality of the trees which made his father buy the tract - it's also the fact that Randolph's elder brother, Byron, is working there as the lawman, a job he drifted into after his experiences in the war in Europe stopped him from returning to the bosom of his wealthy family. But the world is full of too many men hardened by their experiences in war - the Civil War for the older generation, World War One for the younger - and keeping the loggers and sawmill workers on the straight and narrow takes a considerable amount of fighting. This is even more the case once Byron decides to take on the Sicilians who are running the saloon and gambling house just off the property.

This book is wonderfully written but at times almost too harrowing to read. I would certainly recommend it as long as you are feeling strong.

127kidzdoc
May 8, 2016, 6:11am Top

>126 wandering_star: What's the name of this book?

128wandering_star
May 8, 2016, 8:35am Top

Whoops! It's The Clearing by Tim Gautreaux. Thanks for pointing that out...

129wandering_star
May 26, 2016, 11:50am Top

28. Ice Land by Betsy Tobin

This is a retelling of a Norse myth, about Freya the goddess of love, and her desire for the Brisingamen necklace. It's set in Iceland, with the landscape of Iceland playing a crucial role in the plot - caves, crevasses, waterfalls, and brooding over everything the crackling, rumbling volcano. In addition to the story of what Freya does to get the necklace, there is the story of a young (human/mortal) woman, who in parallel falls in love with a young man, equally taboo to her as the dwarves' necklace is to Freya.

I really enjoyed this, although after my first hour or so of reading I had to go off and read up on Norse myths - I re-started the book after that and the additional background knowledge helped.

I had always assumed that I kind of knew about Norse myth in the same way that I kind of know about Greek myth. Turns out I know very little. Since reading the book I have enjoyed the latest episode of the Spirits podcast, an introduction to Norse mythology, and I'm keen to read more - any recommendations?

Men and women turn to me in equal numbers. They bring their broken engagements, their shabby infidelities, their star-crossed romances, their spent marriages, their unrequited passions, in hopes that I will have a cure. Sometimes I do. More often I do not. For what they don’t know is that our world is an elaborate conceit. The gods have no real influence over the lives of men. We are nothing but totems: we occupy the space that men create for something larger than themselves.

130wandering_star
May 26, 2016, 12:01pm Top

29. A Crown of Lights by Phil Rickman

This is the third in the Merrily Watkins series of crime novels - I thought I'd read 1 and 2 already but in the process of writing this review I realised that I'd actually read 1 and 11...

Merrily is a priest and an exorcist, and like the other two books I've read, there are supernatural/paranormal elements to this one - her parish has become the focus of two religious groups, one fundamentalist Christian and the other pagan. It's coming up for Candlemas, and the pagans want to 're-consecrate' a deserted church - one of five which seem to have been built around an ancient forest, with charms to keep a dragon (or the devil) trapped inside.

The first book in the series was more of an 'English magic'/folklore theme, and the other one I've read was themed around Mithras, both of which I find quite interesting. This one I found a bit too pulpy and a bit too long. Somehow I own a few unread books in this series - I'll give one or two more a go before I decide whether it's for me.

Merrily said bitterly, ‘War in heaven, and all the casualties down here.’ ‘Don’t you go losing your faith,’ Betty said. ‘It’s only religion. Faith is faith, but religions are no better than the people who practise them.’

131Nickelini
May 26, 2016, 12:49pm Top

>129 wandering_star: Sounds interesting! I'd like to learn more about Norse myths. I'll follow the podcast link that you provided. Thanks.

132wandering_star
May 29, 2016, 10:30am Top

I would like to read AS Byatt's Ragnarok which seems to be a book which tells the stories of the Norse myths with a framing story of a young girl, maybe Byatt herself, reading the stories.

133wandering_star
May 29, 2016, 7:46pm Top

I am confused by Norse myth again. I told my mum the story of why Odin has one eye - because he sacrificed the other eye to show that he was worthy to get access to a fountain of knowledge/wisdom. She told me that Wotan sacrificed his eye for the privilege of wooing Fricka. I thought Odin and Wotan were the same person! How confusing.

134wandering_star
Edited: May 29, 2016, 8:06pm Top

30. The Secret River by Kate Grenville

This is the story of the Thornhill family, transported to Australia after William Thornhill's sentence of execution is transmuted. The first experience of arriving in Australia is unsettling:

Having never seen anywhere else, Thornhill had imagined that all the world was the same as London, give or take a few parrots and palm trees. How could air, water, dirt and rocks fashion themselves to become so outlandish?

But before too long Thornhill realises that this is somewhere where hard work can buy a man a better life. He falls in love with a strip of deserted ground up-river, petitions to be granted it, and moves the family there. Unknowingly, he grubs up a patch of roots which nearby aboriginal groups rely on as one of their food sources, setting in motion a set of confrontational encounters which gradually escalate.

This book has been very well reviewed on LT but for me, it suffered in comparison with Remembering Babylon, which I read in January (and which is a more subtly written book). The themes are almost identical - how the violence of the early white settlers is a product of their vulnerability, because they are so unsettled by the strangeness of the environment around them.

There were some things I particularly liked about this book, however, such as the relationship between William Thornhill and his wife, as William increasingly sees his best future in Australia while she dreams only of returning to London.

135wandering_star
Jun 5, 2016, 12:30pm Top

31. Talking To The Dead by Harry Bingham

The first in a detective series featuring police officer Fiona Griffiths. It starts with the murder of a young woman and her daughter. It seems like a fairly straightforward case - a killing linked to drugs or prostitution - but a few things don't add up, and in her own dogged way, Fiona Griffiths follows these threads and finds herself somewhere much more complicated and dangerous. I enjoyed this - it really was a page-turner - and will read more in the series. Fiona herself has some sort of psychological condition, which we eventually learn about at the end of the book. Although this is such a cliché in a detective, I didn't mind it here - her social distance leads to some pretty funny sardonic comments.

Accountants come in pairs these days. A middle-aged man in a dark suit and a film of perspiration, plus his younger accomplice, a woman who looks like her hobbies are arranging things in rows and making right angles.

136wandering_star
Jun 5, 2016, 12:51pm Top

32. Imperium by Robert Harris

The first in a series which imagines the story around the limited historical knowledge we have of Cicero's life. It was recommended to me by a friend who started it, and couldn't put his Kindle down until he'd got through the whole trilogy. Unfortunately it didn't have that effect on me... Perhaps because I don't know a lot about the history of that time, so I was reading it purely as a story rather than looking at the re-imagining, but I found it much too long, and my interest flagged quite often.

Occasionally I picked up what seemed to be a description of another political figure who Harris knows well, former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair. I am sure that the scenes in which Cicero supports Pompey in his response to the pirate attacks are a reference to Blair and Bush after 9/11. That was fairly interesting, but not enough to support the rest of the book.

There are few forces in politics harder to resist than a feeling that something is inevitable, for humans move as a flock, and will always rush like sheep towards the safety of a winner.

137wandering_star
Jun 8, 2016, 11:41am Top

33. The Lie by Helen Dunmore

There are two lies in The Lie. One is told by the protagonist, Daniel, shortly after he returns home to his village after fighting in France during World War One. The lie starts out small, almost a lie of omission, because Daniel has been making a quiet life for himself since his return and he doesn't want that life disrupted. Gradually, he realises that perhaps he does want another life, but that early lie has set him on a certain path - will he be able to change it?

The second lie, of course, is the great lie that war is noble and glorious and anything other than an ugly, bloody, violent struggle. Daniel has shell-shock, and so as he goes about his life in the Cornish countryside he has terrible flashbacks to his experiences in France, and in particular the death of his childhood friend and commanding officer, Frederick.

Dunmore writes well; but I didn't think this lived up to her wonderful book about the siege of Leningrad (called The Siege). I enjoyed that book for its characters and also the well-imagined depiction of what life was like in the city under siege, something I'd never really thought about before. The Lie is really only about two people - Daniel, and Frederick's sister Felicia, and their lives are dominated by grief. It's well-imagined, and well-portrayed, but I did wonder whether I needed to read another book about the experiences of soldiers in WWI.

138rachbxl
Jun 9, 2016, 4:29am Top

I've enjoyed catching up with your thread. Hope you're feeling settled in Thailand by now. I was interested to see your reaction to The Secret River in comparison to Remembering Babylon. I, too, read them in fairly close succession, but the other way round - and for me Remembering Babylon suffered in comparison to The Secret River. You're right about the Malouf being more subtly written, and I suspect that I just wasn't quite in the mood for that at the time.

139wandering_star
Jun 9, 2016, 8:02pm Top

>138 rachbxl: - I can imagine that! There is just too much overlap in the themes, and of course whichever one you read first would have the stronger impression on you.

It's a bit like with the book and the film of The English Patient - I think whichever one of those someone encountered first would seem much better than the other. (I read the book first so the film seemed much more superficial in contrast).

140wandering_star
Jun 9, 2016, 8:05pm Top

>138 rachbxl: PS yes, I feel like I've settled in very quickly, thanks! I have even found a lovely library to join...

141SassyLassy
Jun 10, 2016, 9:41am Top

That is a beautiful library and it's amazing the activities it supports. What a great start to your stay.

142wandering_star
Jul 16, 2016, 9:58pm Top

>141 SassyLassy: Thank you! My plan is to go there later today, so I need to review the books I'm returning.

The last few weeks (actually, the last couple of months) have gone by very quickly, and I've been away from home or had friends staying for the last six weekends in a row! This weekend is a quieter one and a chance to catch up.

34. The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

The only thing I took away from all the reviews when this book came out was that it was set in an imaginary dystopian future where it was possible to choose a safe and prosperous life in a gated city, in exchange for spending half your time in jail. I didn't understand that premise at all, and unfortunately after reading the book I still don't.

However, that wasn't the biggest problem I had with the book. I think that Margaret Atwood is always concerned with the way that people treat each other, and in this book she focuses on sex and lust. I found myself thinking a lot about the change in her perspective between The Handmaid's Tale and this book; The Handmaid's Tale is about women being oppressed by men, while The Heart Goes Last is about a world in which everybody, whatever their sex, is treated by others simply as a means to an end. I think that does represent a genuine shift in our (pop) culture (politically of course women's reproductive rights are still under serious threat). So I don't disagree with the theme, but there was a lot of sex in this book, and almost all of it nasty and manipulative in some way - whether people were pretending to be something they weren't or forcing the other person to pretend.

Margaret Atwood of course is still a great writer, but I didn't really enjoy reading about all this, and I found myself increasingly disconnected from the characters in the book. A disappointment.

Looking back on his life, he sees himself spread out on the earth like a giant covered in tiny threads that have held him down. Tiny threads of petty cares and small concerns, and fears he took seriously at the time. Debts, timetables, the need for money, the longing for comfort; the earworm of sex, repeating itself over and over like a neural feedback loop. He’s been the puppet of his own constricted desires.

PS: time for a re-read of The Handmaid's Tale I think...

143wandering_star
Jul 16, 2016, 10:15pm Top

35. This Is How You Die: Stories of the Inscrutable, Infallible, Inescapable Machine of Death ed. Ryan North

This is the second anthology of Machine of Death stories - the premise of all of them is that someone has invented a machine which can tell, from a drop of your blood, the manner of your death. Because the stories are written by different people, they are all set in different future worlds - the pleasure is often in seeing what they do with the premise. Some of the stories are about the social or cultural impact of having such a machine, others are twist-in-the-tale stories (the machine's readings are literally true but sometimes misleading, as when someone gets "drug deal", then has an allergic reaction to discount aspirin).

I think the quality of the stories was more variable than in the first anthology, but there were some brilliant ones. In one, an identical twin takes the test, despite the fact that her twin sister doesn't want to know the answer - and gets two slips, one saying "old age, surrounded by loved ones", the other suggesting a much earlier and more painful death. The woman with the knowledge seeks out the painful death to ensure her sister has a long and happy life. "Apitoxin" is a very enjoyable Holmesian story - a man comes to the consulting detective terrified that his slip says "Garrotted Thursday next". And some stories, like "Tetrapod", simply take the world in which the Machine of Death exists as the background to the lives of its characters.

Did I want to fly to Harare with her on a private jet and see the largest waterfall in the world, then kill a guy on it? I absolutely did. But did I want to be the creative director of mortality who wasted a huge amount of time and money by taking a prediction at face value? No. I wasn’t sure I wanted to do this job much longer, but I felt I should keep doing it properly until I officially quit.

144wandering_star
Jul 16, 2016, 10:29pm Top

36. The Brief History Of The Dead by Kevin Brockmeier

There is an afterlife, in which you live for as long as there is someone alive who remembers you.

In the world of the living, a plague strikes, and soon only one person is left alive, a woman called Laura who is doing research in the Antarctic. The afterlife is made up entirely of the people that she remembers - whether from close relationships or one-off encounters.

This is a beautifully written story about our connections to and need for other people. For me (and I know I always say this) it would have been better if it had been shorter - about 2/3 of the way through there is an attempt to introduce a bit of plot, about the origins of the plague, which I didn't think was necessary at all. But still a very good read.

The stories people told about the crossing were as varied and elaborate as their ten billion lives, so much more particular than those other stories, the ones they told about their deaths. After all, there were only so many ways a person could die: either your heart took you, or your head took you, or it was one of the new diseases. But no one followed the same path over the crossing. Lev Paley said that he had watched his atoms break apart like marbles, roll across the universe, then gather themselves together again out of nothing at all. Hanbing Li said that he woke inside the body of an aphid and lived an entire life in the flesh of a single peach. Graciella Cavazos would say only that she began to snow—four words—and smile bashfully whenever anyone pressed her for details.

145wandering_star
Jul 16, 2016, 10:42pm Top

37. White Ravens by Owen Sheers

This is one of a series of books retelling stories from the Welsh book of myth, The Mabinogion. White Ravens takes the story of Branwen, whose half-brother goes mad with rage when he discovers that she is marrying without his consent. In his fury, he mutilates the bridegroom's horses, and things get worse from there.

The story is transposed to World War One Britain. Matthew, a civil servant, is sent to Wales to pick up some raven chicks - to bolster the population of ravens at the Tower of London, for as everyone knows, there is a prophecy that if the ravens ever left, Britain would fall. When he arrives, the ravens have not yet hatched, and he stays long enough to fall in love with the woman of the house. As it's wartime, they marry quickly - and in the middle of the wedding her brother arrives home from the war, unsettled by shell-shock.

This part of the story took up almost the first half of the book, and I really enjoyed it. However, once the story from the myth actually kicked in, the pace picked up and all the background detail and psychological realism fell away. I know that in myths, you don't get background detail and psychological realism... but it was hard to adjust given the depth and texture of the first part of the book.

It was a small place which had seen plenty of hard times. Their view was, well, close. Half of them ploughed the fields rolling down to the sea, and the other half ploughed the sea itself, hauling up bulging nets of fish from under her waves. Their physical horizons were broad – on a clear day Matthew’s father reckoned he could see Wales from the top of the Wicklow hills. But their personal horizons were narrow. Matthew was pretty sure he’d be getting no hero’s welcome when he returned.

146wandering_star
Jul 16, 2016, 11:05pm Top

38. The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

This is the story of Dorrigo Evans, an Australian doctor who was once a POW of the Japanese, building the Burma railroad. As the ranking officer, he tries to protect the other prisoners as much as possible in incredibly terrible circumstances. In his later years he becomes famous in Australia for this time in his life, but one of the points this book is making is that it wasn't necessariy the most important thing about his life - equally important are the love of his life (which the war takes him away from), and his life after the war as a good doctor, a womaniser, and a war hero.

The other theme of the book is that all the circumstances of our life happen to us. Do we have the ability to resist those circumstances, or to choose how we will behave in response? You might guess that a book with the setting of a Japanese POW camp, in which the Japanese officers treat the prisoners with great brutality, would come up with the answer yes: we can and must choose how we behave in order to be moral beings. But I'm not sure that the book does lead us to that conclusion - which is one of the things which makes reading it so interesting.

It's very well-written too, though sometimes a tough read (the descriptions of life in the camp). I found the great love story a bit implausible and - yes - I thought it could have been shorter, but I think I would read it again.

As far as she could see all the fish were pointed in the same direction along the wave face, and all were swimming furiously as they sought to escape the breaking wave’s hold. And all the time the wave had them in its power and would take them where it would, and there was nothing that glistening chain of fish could do to change their fate.

147wandering_star
Jul 16, 2016, 11:19pm Top

39. The Black Tower by Louis Bayard

I'm a man of a certain age - old enough to have been every kind of fool - and I find to my surprise that the only counsel I have to pass on is this: Never let your name be found in a dead man's trousers.

So starts The Black Tower, before continuing on to the tale of an extraordinary encounter, between our narrator - a nervous medical student - and the unforgettable character of Vidocq, the world's first detective, a former convict and a man with Holmesian skills of disguise, chutzpah and observation. (Vidocq was a real person and a fascinating one - much of the character seems to be based on reality).

And yes, Dr Charpentier's name has been found in a dead man's trousers, which pulls him into a dangerous investigation and a grand conspiracy. It is 1818, and France is recovering from the French Revolution and the rule of Napoleon. Vidocq is following a trail which suggests that perhaps the Dauphin, son of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, did not die in prison but was smuggled out and remains alive somewhere. But there have been a trail of pretenders - why should this case be any different?

I LOVED this. It is a fun and exciting romp (in case you couldn't tell from that opening line) which also features good writing and a really interesting - and convincing - historical setting. What else could you ask for?

148wandering_star
Jul 16, 2016, 11:33pm Top

40. Ragnarok: the end of the gods by AS Byatt

I picked this up because I've been intrigued by Norse myth since reading Ice Land a couple of months ago. It's the story of a young girl (based on Byatt herself) who is evacuated to the countryside with her family during the Blitz, and becomes immersed in a book of Norse myths.

I know I said a couple of reviews ago that myth rarely includes background detail or psychological realism. Byatt retells these stories with lots of lush, poetic detail. And although we don't get psychological realism in the sense of the characters having motivation for their actions, she brings out the relationship between the myths and the archetypes, and our subconsious.

And the wolf? Wolves run strongly through the forests of the mind. Humans heard the howling in the dark, an urgent music, a gleeful reciprocal chorus; the loping, padding, tireless runners are both out of sight and inside the head. There, too, are the bristling coat, the snout, the teeth, the blood. Firelight, and the light of the full moon, are reflected in inhuman eyes, glittering in the dark, specks of brightness in deep shadows. Humans respect wolves, the closeness and warmth of the pack, the ingenuity of the chase, the calling and growling, messages from the throat. Odin in Asgard had two tamed cubs at his feet, to which he threw the meat he did not eat.

The brutality of the war is a backdrop to the child's reading, and highlights again the continued relevance of myths. In her afterword, Byatt comments that the gods "know Ragnarok is coming but are incapable of imagining any way to fend it off, or change the story" - a greatly human trait.

149Nickelini
Jul 17, 2016, 2:05am Top

>122 detailmuse: For me (and I know I always say this) it would have been better if it had been shorter -

Me too. I love the 200 page novel. I like a succinct story. Same with movies. Although there are long movies and chunkster books that I love. For the most part, I prefer short and vibrant.

150wandering_star
Jul 17, 2016, 10:20am Top

>149 Nickelini: Yes! definitely movies too. What movie wouldn't be better if it was 20 mins shorter?

So I returned my two books to the library and came home with several more:
The View From Castle Rock by Alice Munro
Real Time by Amit Chaudhuri
Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon
The Running Woman by Patricia Carlon
The Merry Misogynist by Colin Cotterill
(the library is particularly well stocked with crime fiction...)

151wandering_star
Jul 24, 2016, 1:11am Top

41. The Passenger by Lisa Lutz

This story of a woman on the run, who has to keep changing identities, is billed as a psychological thriller. It isn't - that suggests something darker and more fearful. This story was fast-moving, but had very little emotional weight, despite all the things which happen to our narrator, and the episodes were repetitive: she moves location and changes her name; someone from her past catches up with her; she attacks them and then has to start all over again. Despite a promising beginning, she doesn't even turn out to be an unreliable narrator.

I had worked hard at becoming Debra Maze, and I wasn't quite ready to give her up. Jack Reed was gone, and he wasn't coming back. As far as I could tell, there had been no witnesses. So I brushed my teeth, washed my face, dressed in a cheery blue sundress, checked under my fingernails for blood, and arrived fifteen minutes early for class.

152wandering_star
Edited: Jul 25, 2016, 8:31pm Top

42. There But For The by Ali Smith

Imagine the relief there'd be, in just stepping through the door of a spare room, a room that wasn't anything to do with you, and shutting the door, and that being that.

There'd be a window, wouldn't there?

Were there any books in there?

What would you do all day?

What would happen if you did just shut a door and stop speaking? Hour after hour after hour of no words. Would you speak to yourself? Would words just stop being useful? Would you lose language altogether? Or would words mean more, would they start to mean in every direction, all somersault and assault, like a thuggery of fireworks? Would they proliferate, like untended plantlife? Would the inside of your head overgrow with every word that has ever come into it, every word that has ever silently taken seed or fallen dormant?


One day, in the middle of a dinner party, a man goes upstairs in a house that isn't his, and locks himself in a bedroom.

We never find out, exactly, what Miles' motivation is. Instead, in the four sections of this book - each titled with one of the four words of the title - we see glimpses of his life from his relationship with different people - two from his childhood, and two from around the time of the dinner party. We see, perhaps, a few hints of what made Miles think he couldn't take it any more - there is a lot here about what is real, and authentic, and what is the sanest response to a world which is insane. But one of the many pleasures of this book is that it doesn't explain everything - you can read between the lines and draw your own conclusions, and if you miss a reference or two the book will still be a rich experience. As usual, Ali Smith's wit and humanity come through.

If you would like to know more please also read Cariola's excellent review which is much better expressed than this one!

153valkyrdeath
Jul 28, 2016, 7:48pm Top

>152 wandering_star: This one sounds really intriguing and I think I'll try and get to it soon. I've never read anything by Ali Smith but I've heard her mentioned a lot and this seems a good place to start.

154wandering_star
Aug 14, 2016, 4:00am Top

>153 valkyrdeath: I think this might be my favourite of hers, that I've read recently anyway - I read The Accidental too long ago to be able to compare it.

155wandering_star
Aug 14, 2016, 4:26am Top

43. The Bullet Catcher's Daughter by Rod Duncan

Enjoyable steampunk set in an alternate reality where the Luddites won. Invention and innovation have been banned throughout the Gas-Lit Empire - which seems to bestride the globe. Our heroine is an "intelligence gatherer" (private detective), whose main assets are her quick wits and ability to switch disguises at a moment's notice - even some of her friends don't realise that the "brother" she lives with is in fact Elizabeth herself.

I thought this was pretty well-written and enjoyed the style of the storytelling. I would definitely give it as a gift to any fantasy-loving teenage girls I knew. But I'd be surprised if I can remember much about it in a year's time.

Five doors along, I paused as if diverted by the display in a shop window. Under this pretence, I snatched a look back towards the hotel, confirming that John Farthing had not followed. I felt relieved, but not entirely so. No intelligence gatherer is happy with a coincidence.

156wandering_star
Aug 14, 2016, 4:37am Top

44. Junkyard Planet: travels in the billion-dollar trash trade by Adam Minter

Adam Minter is a journalist who grew up helping out with his family's junkyard business. Later in life when living in China, he became fascinated by the global trade in junk - waste paper, plastic, metal, and everything else - particularly given the massive volume that is imported to China, recycled into raw materials, and re-exported (or, increasingly, sold within China itself). It is an interesting story, but to be honest, I think it's long-magazine-article interesting rather than 300-page-book interesting.

Each individual chapter of Junkyard Planet tells an interesting story in an interesting way. But almost all of them share the same trajectory. Minter and someone who deals in scrap look at some waste products. The scrap dealer points at piles of rubbish and tells Minter the exact market price for their components. Some of the scrap is recycled. And we get a few statistics about the size of the global market, and how - despite the dirt and messiness of the scrapyards and recycling facitilies - it's much better for the environment to do this than to pull new materials out of the ground.

I don't want this review to sound unduly negative - I really did find the information in the book interesting, particularly about the role of waste material recycling in China's economic development over the last decade. But I had to read a couple of chapters at a time, then put the book down until I had forgotten about them before reading on. I think the book must have been put together from a series of different articles on scrap; it would have been more work, but produced a better product, to rearrange the content thematically and maybe pick out only the most telling stories and examples.

“I want to know the price of some stuff,” I tell them, and open my bag. I place each of my five cell phones onto the sofa, along with the rest of the old electronics I’ve brought along. The young men reach for the devices, turn them in their hands, one by one, and discuss the kinds of chips they contain, the amount of gold that they might hold. “See, they know the chips in the phones,” Henry says with wonder. “Some of the chips maybe they can sell for ten or twelve dollars. But for you, they just pay for the scrap value. Unbelievable how they know all of the chips just by looking at the phone model.” “The phones aren’t reusable?” “Of course not!” He laughs. “They’re five years old. Who wants them? Even in Africa, the market isn’t so good for these anymore.” Even in Africa, where the living standards are often lower than the poor villages that supply labor to Guiyu, they want to upgrade to something better. It’s the modern mindset, the source of Guiyu’s scrap.

157wandering_star
Sep 11, 2016, 12:14am Top

45. The North Water by Ian McGuire

The nineteenth century. A whaling ship sets out for a trip to arctic waters. There are many secrets on board, from the guilty to the criminal, both small-scale and large.

It's a time of some desperation - the glory days of whaling are over and the returns are getting smaller. The captain, Brownlee, has a bad reputation, but is a confidante of the ship's owner, Baxter:

‘And what of Brownlee? I hear he’s unlucky.’ ‘Baxter trusts him.’ ‘Indeed,’ Sumner says, picking up the package, tucking it under one arm, then leaning down to sign the receipt. ‘And what do we think of Mr Baxter?’ ‘We think he’s rich,’ the chemist answers, ‘and round these parts a man don’t generally get rich by being stupid.’

Often, books with this sort of backdrop allow the writer to contrast the brutal inhumanity of the setting with the way that the human beings in the story treat each other. Here, if anything, the contrast is between the gruesome brutality of humankind with the beautiful, harsh, indifference of the landscape.

The writing is lush and vivid:

He thinks about the great right whales lying bunched in pods like leaden storm clouds beneath the silent sheets of ice.

or

Sumner remembers watching the iceberg through the grey veil of flailing snow: many-storeyed and immaculate, moving smoothly and unstoppably forward with the frictionless non-movement of a planet.

It's equally lush and vivid when describing gory violence, which is inescapable in this book.

The book is also full of ideas, so many and so subtly brought in that it's hard to list the themes. I found it an incredibly rich read, distasteful at times because of the very explicit violence, but even with that, the best book I've read so far this year.

158wandering_star
Edited: Sep 11, 2016, 1:47am Top

46. A Working Theory of Love by Scott Hutchins

I got this book from the library, as I was checking my TBR list as I went along the stacks. I almost put it straight back on the shelves, put off by the cover:



The main character, too, doesn't seem like someone I would enjoy reading about - a man in early middle age, working in a tech startup in San Francisco, with desultory romantic interests in three women, a young hipster, a professional woman his own age, and his ex-wife.

But somehow this story takes a lot of potentially cliched material and turns it into something thoughtful and moving. Neill's startup is trying to programme a computer to pass the Turing test - fooling a human judge into thinking it is a human rather than a computer - and the starting point was feeding it the detailed, decades-long journals kept by Neill's father. Neill's job is to keep talking to the computer and train it to understand and reply in a way that a human might communicate - and he ends up with more, and deeper, communication with the machine than he ever did with his real father. Equally, the relationships between his father and mother, and his father's best friend, counterpoint the relationships that Neill has, or fails to have, with the people around them.

The questions this book asks are fairly common ones: what makes us human? What happens to human relationships in a world where everything is available - and customisable - online? But A Working Theory of Love does a better job of answering them than most (and much better, in my view, than Margaret Atwood's The Heart Goes Last, sacreligious as it feels to say that!) I have no idea where I got the recommendation from for this book, but I am glad to have had it.

Livorno snatches {a model of} Tiger Woods from his desk. “I have to compete against a multimillionaire and one of my principal employees is of a religious mind-set.” He says this bitterly. He’s not referring to the devout Muslim in the other room, but to me. My religious mind-set, I suppose, is that there’s something particular about humans that makes them human. “You mustn’t forget: your father appearing to want to talk to you is measurably indistinguishable from his really wanting to talk to you."

159wandering_star
Oct 4, 2016, 5:15am Top

47. Garnethill by Denise Mina

Glasgow. Maureen O'Donnell wakes up one morning after a heavy night, to find her married lover bloodily murdered in her sitting room. The police struggle to find the person responsible, and what clues there are seem to point to Maureen herself, so she starts to investigate herself, soon realising that the reason behind his murder is something that she - as a former psychiatric patient - is better placed to uncover than a more formal or heavy-handed police approach might do (he lover was murdered because he was uncovering evidence of a sexual abuse ring which targeted patients in a psychiatric hospital). This thriller is gritty not just because of the crimes but also because of the bleak daily lives of many of the characters.

"I'm not allowed out the close," said the wee boy, looking at the pound note.
"Can ye stand in the close mouth and shout, just here?" She gestured to the top step.
"Aye," said the wee boy. "I can do that."
"Remember, if a man goes up there and interferes with the door you've to come out here and shout like made, okay?"
"Aye. How have I to? Is her man gonnae give her a doing?"
"Not if we stop him."
The boy looked at the pound note and back at Maureen, his eyes wide with surprise. "Can ye stop a man giving a mammy a doing?" He looked up at her, his face old and wondering, waiting for the answer.
"Ye can phone the police," she said. He bounced his ball once, shook his head and smiled cynically. "Ye can tell other people about it. That'll embarrass him."
He bounced his ball. "Right," he said, nodding and thinking about it. "Very good."

160wandering_star
Oct 4, 2016, 5:35am Top

48. After Me Comes The Flood by Sarah Perry

This novel is set over a few days towards the end of the 1976 heatwave, in a big house, near a reservoir. John Cole, lost on a drive in the countryside, comes up to the house to ask for directions, but is greeted by someone who knows his name and seems to be expecting him. Disoriented by the days of heat and by the strange mixture of people already living in the house - all of whom give him a warm welcome - John never quite gets around to explaining the mistaken identity, and when he answers the phone to the real expected guest saying that he is delayed for at least a week, he decides to stay on.

With him, we get to know the other residents, and learn that they have come together after meeting in a genteel psychiatric institution. One of the residents, Elijah, is a priest who has lost his faith; another, Alex, is obsessed with the idea that the heatwave is creating cracks in the reservoir and when the rain falls again the dam will break.

Sarah Perry has done an extremely effective job of creating an unsettling atmosphere for the reader, from John's narrative voice and frequent confusion, to the almost complete lack of any context for the world around our characters. The landscape, too, is deceptive:

To his right as he walked were the long narrow gardens of the last houses before the sea; to his left, several feet below, was the low stretch of land that was drowned and revived every day by the industrious tides. It was an indistinct landscape riddled with irregular channels that ran into and out of each other everywhere he looked. Late in the day water would seep from under the soft mud and trickle unhurriedly in fine rivulets, gathering speed until the tide was high.

This makes the reader more sympathetic to the characters as we too are not quite sure of the ground beneath our feet. In some ways it makes this a bit of a challenging read, but fortunately I enjoy books that make me work a bit to understand what is going on; and there is enough here that I think I would enjoy reading it again, now that I do know the context a bit better.

161wandering_star
Oct 4, 2016, 5:49am Top

49. Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys

Never mind, I have some money now. I may be able to do something about it. Twelve o’clock on a fine autumn day, and nothing to worry about. Some money to spend and nothing to worry about.
But careful, careful! Don’t get excited. You know what happens when you get excited and exalted, don’t you?… Yes. … And then, you know how you collapse like a pricked balloon, don’t you? Having no staying power. … Yes, exactly. … So, no excitement. This is going to be a quiet, sane fortnight. Not too much drinking, avoidance of certain cafés, of certain streets, of certain spots, and everything will go off beautifully.
The thing is to have a programme, not to leave anything to chance - no gaps. No trailing around aimlessly with cheap gramophone records starting up in your head, no ‘Here this happened, here that happened’. Above all, no crying in public, no crying at all if you can help it.


Sasha Jensen is a woman who is trapped. She has always lived on her looks and her wit - but now, in (I think) her early forties, she doesn't have enough of the former to carry on living on men's generosity; and probably has too much of the latter to be able to live simply and happily. She has a small legacy which just about allows her to eke out an existence - but not enough to really live. The events in this novella take place during a trip to Paris - an acquaintance bumped into her in London at one of her lowest points, and persuaded her to go to Paris for a short visit.

Very well-written but just so incredibly sad. Even the good things which happen to Sasha have awful results, such as the barely-enough legacy; her one remaining possession, a good fur coat, leads to her being approached by a gigolo who takes her as a rich older woman. Although I appreciated this book I can't say that I exactly 'enjoyed' reading it.

I am not at all sad as I walk back to the hotel. When I remember how one well-directed ‘Oh, my God,’ lays me out flat in London, I can only marvel at the effect this place has on me. I expect it is because the drink is so much better.
No, I am not sad, but by the time I get to the Boulevard St Michel I am feeling tired. I have walked along here so often, feeling tired. … Here is the fountain with the beautiful prancing horses. There is a tabac where I can have a drink near the next statue, the quinine statue.
Just them two men come up from behind and walk along on either side of me. One of them says: ‘Pourquoi êtes-vous si triste?'
Yes, I am sad, sad as a circus-lioness, sad as an eagle without wings, sad as a violin with only one string and that one broken, sad as a woman who is going old. Sad, sad, sad. …

162wandering_star
Oct 4, 2016, 7:22am Top

50. The Impossible Dead by Ian Rankin

This is the second detective story in the series featuring Malcolm Fox, from 'The Complaints' - the police who investigate complaints against other police officers. In this one, the case (against a cop who apparently offered to let people off in return for sexual favours) becomes mixed up with a 1980s cold case, in which a Scottish nationalist agitator crashed his car - and was then shot in the head. At the time he was a person of interest to the intelligence agencies and evidence mysteriously disappeared. This is also linked to modern fears about terrorism - in the background of the story are a series of blasts which injure no-one but could be preparations for something far more serious.

Fear: Fox had noticed the same thing when skimming the news reports from 1985. Fear was ever-present. When you’d stopped needing to fear a US–Soviet conflagration or an impending ice age, something else came along in its place.

Quite an interesting storyline but not as gripping as I had expected from Ian Rankin.

163wandering_star
Edited: Oct 4, 2016, 7:33am Top

51. Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China by Evan Osnos

One of the things that I enjoyed most about living in China was the sense that every day, things are happening that have never happened before. The boundaries of what is possible are being pushed back, millimetre by millimetre, not necessarily because of any conscious or political action but by thousands of people all thinking 'I wonder what would happen if I did this'. This spirit is very well encapsulated in this book.

Evan Osnos was the New Yorker correspondent in China from 2008-2013. I always enjoyed reading his reports, and one in particular (a report on a Chinese tour group in Europe - here) has been read, discussed and passed around by almost every expat in China. This book does a good job of explaining what China felt like, and tells many great human stories. Osnos describes it as “an account of the collision of two forces: aspiration and authoritarianism”, and also discusses the difficulties of a Western foreign correspondent when deciding how much emphasis to put on either side of that equation. Of course, the book draws from what he wrote for the New Yorker, but it doesn't feel like a collection of articles loosely stitched together. I would have like it if he had also stood back a bit and drawn out an overall picture, but perhaps that's his point - it's impossible to do that for a country this diverse and complex. I would certainly recommend it as an interesting read.

If a magazine like hers broke the rules, the {Central Propaganda} Department gave it a warning known as a yellow card, as in soccer. Three yellow cards in one year, and she could be shut down. The Department wasn’t reading stories before publication; on the contrary, it was up to editors themselves to guess how far they could go and compute the risk of wandering past an ill-defined limit. That was a specific kind of pressure, which China scholar Perry Link once compared to living beneath an ‘anaconda coiled in an overhead chandelier’. ‘Normally, the great snake doesn’t move,’ he wrote. ‘It doesn’t have to. It feels no need to be clear about its prohibitions. Its silent constant message is ‘You yourself decide,’ after which, more often than not, everyone in its shadows makes his or her large and small adjustments - all quite ‘naturally’.

164wandering_star
Oct 4, 2016, 8:01am Top

52. His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet

From this year's Booker shortlist. A nineteenth-century murder, told through documentation, including the murderer's own explanation, reports of the trial, statements by witnesses and so on.

There are some very good bits in this - a particular highlight was the Kafka-esque response which the murderer's father received from the laird's factor when he (the father) made a request to see the regulations which the crofters were under, fearing that the village constable is imposing rules which don't really exist:

'The reason you may not “see” the regulations is because there are no regulations, at least not in the way you seem to think. You might as well ask to see the air we breathe. Of course, there are regulations, but you cannot see them. The regulations exist because we all accept that they exist and without them there would be anarchy. It is for the village constable to interpret these regulations and to enforce them at his discretion.'

But overall, I would say this was just OK. A perfectly fine and easy read, but I didn't see anything which would justify it being Booker-shortlisted.

165wandering_star
Oct 4, 2016, 5:21pm Top

53. The View From Castle Rock by Alice Munro

It's some years since I have read any Alice Munro, and I had forgotten what a fantastic writer she is. This book is a sort of family history. Part One is short stories inspired by the arrival in the New World of Munro's ancestors (many of whom, helpfully, kept journals or wrote lengthy letters about their lives); the view of the title refers to the ancestor who made the move to Canada, being taken up to the top of the castle in Edinburgh and having 'America' (actually Fife) pointed out to him in the distance. Part Two consists of short stories inspired by events in Munro's own life (although she points out in a preface that the characters evolved in surprising ways, sometimes to the extent that she couldn't remember who they were originally based on).

In this stories Munro somehow manages to convey the characters' inner lives simply by telling us about their outward behaviour. Frequently, someone reveals a completely unexpected inner life by doing a single thing out of character - or at least, out of the character which the narrator (and therefore the reader) had assumed was theirs. Strong emotions have to read into simple, unexplained behaviour - I enjoyed 'The Wilds of Morris Township' in which a man, one of half-a-dozen brothers and sisters, made the decision to build a house of his own next door to the family plot, in the face of opposition from the most strong-minded sister (and family matriarch) and gossip from the neighbourhood.

I also wanted to close the book at the end of each story and think about what I had read. In 'The Ticket', the narrator is preparing to get married, to a man whose background and expectations are very different from her own. As her family pack her trousseau - with handmade items which will never fit in with her married house full of the latest shop-bought stuff - the narrator thinks about the three marriages she knows best - her parents, grandparents and great-aunt's. Only the last is seen to be a marriage where real love has lasted, and yet it is this aunt who - at the last minute - presses a handful of money on the narrator, in case she decides to run away from the wedding.

There is so much depth of story in these stories, if that makes sense. This paragraph (from 'Working For A Living') could have been a story or even a book on its own:

A young woman came to visit. A cousin on the Irish side - a schoolteacher, lively and persistent and good-looking, a few years older than he. She was immediately interested in the foxes, and not, as his mother thought, pretending to be interested in order to entice him. (Between his mother and the visitor there was an almost instant antipathy, though they were cousins.) She came from a much poorer home, a poorer farm, than this one, and she had become a schoolteacher by her own desperate efforts. The only reason she had stopped there was that schoolteaching was the best thing for women that she had come across so far. She was a hardworking popular teacher, but some gifts that she knew she had were not being used. These gifts had something to do with taking chances, making money. They were gifts as out of place in my father's house as they had been in her own, looked at askance in both places, although they were the very gifts (less often mentioned than the hard work, the perseverence) that had built the country. She looked at the foxes and she did not see any romantic connection to the wilderness; she saw a new industry, the possibility of riches. She had a little money saved to buy a place where all this could get started in earnest. She became my mother.

166wandering_star
Oct 9, 2016, 11:01am Top

54. The Dyslexic Hearts Club by Hanneke Hendrix

This was a very serendipitous discovery. I have been in London for the last few weeks, and one afternoon I was unexpectedly free (a meeting had been cancelled). Having a flick through social media while I tried to decide what to do, I discovered there was a jewellery sample sale not too far away, in a part of town that I knew had a lot of independent shops. So I thought it would be a good place for a potter - and discovered a really interesting little bookshop called Belgravia Books. Although quite a small shop, it had a lot of variety of stock, and plenty of books I hadn't seen or heard of elsewhere, including lots of small presses and books in translation. I came away with a small haul, and this is the first one that I have read.

This Dutch novel starts with three women in a hospital ward - with a police officer on guard outside. One of the women is covered in severe burns; another refuses to say anything. The third, who wants to be called by only her surname Vandersteen, has a good line in sardonic comments. All three women have their reasons for wanting to get out of the hospital, and soon they engineer a break-out, before going on the run. Although they each bring some skills to the escape, they aren't exactly hardened criminals, and in a country as small and densely populated as the Netherlands, it may not be easy to stay out of the authorities' clutches for very long...

Although there are serious elements to the story, it's pretty funny and a quick read. I enjoyed it especially for the relationship which developed between the three women.

We lay on a grassy hillock looking down at a rustic farmhouse a short distance away.

'The burning question is,' said Vandersteen, 'are we looking at a real farm, or one that's been tarted up by a couple of baby boomers or double-income hipsters? Hipsters is my guess. Real farmers don't go in for fancy trim. But if they're too hip, they'll have an alarm to protect their designer goodies. Oh well. The good Lord loves a trier. Or is it a liar? I can never remember.'

'The good Lord loves a sinner,' I said.

'That'll do me,' said Vandersteen.

167wandering_star
Oct 9, 2016, 11:31am Top

55. The Less Than Perfect Legend of Donna Creosote by Dan Micklethwaite

There's a podcast I listen to called "The Readers". I enjoy it but I really, really have to stop following up their book recommendations. I've definitely had at least one dud before, and unfortunately this was another.

Donna is a young woman who loves to read. Her house is so full of books that she has carpeted the floor of her bedroom with them (going through all her books to find all those with 350 pages so that it would be a level floor). She especially loves fantasy, and finds the real world much harder to engage with. For no terribly clear reason, she decides to live as one of the characters from her fantasy novels - going out one day dressed as a knight (grey tracky with baking trays duct-taped around the torso, and a helmet made from a saucepan and cheese-grater). That doesn't go too well in downtown Huddersfield, but the experience does put Donna back in touch with a boy that she knew at school.

So far I was quite enjoying the story, although the writing style was a bit grating. After this it fell apart completely, with nothing happening for any clear reason. I really couldn't see the point of this book - amazingly it has been shortlisted for the "Not the Booker" which is supposed to be about ordinary people choosing the books they think should be recognised.

The buying of second-hand books was, for Donna, somewhat akin to pet rescue. Had this volume been a dog, it might have been bloated and balding and missing some teeth. Yet such was her compassion for afflicted creatures that, upon noticing the book there on the charity shop shelf, its raggedy spine bandaged to its body with peeling strips of parcel tape, she’d been unable to leave the premises without it.

168wandering_star
Oct 9, 2016, 11:51am Top

56. Galveston by Nic Pizzolatto (audiobook, read by Michael Kramer)

Roy Cady is a hard-man, operating on the wrong side of the law. One day, a job goes badly wrong - in a way which makes him think he may have been set up. He flees the scene, helping the only other survivor - a teenage hooker - to escape as well. When they hit Galveston, perhaps it's time to stop running. You could broker the future here, dump your memories into the white light of the Gulf like leaves into a bonfire. But it's not that easy to get back on your feet and start over.

There is some terrific writing here and a bleak, disturbing story. Occasionally it all felt a bit overdone - but definitely worth a look if you like noir.

A woman emerged out the room behind the counter, her flesh so grooved and dehydrated it might have been cured in a smokehouse. It was sun-baked the colour of golden oak and draped across jagged bones.

169wandering_star
Edited: Oct 9, 2016, 12:13pm Top

57. Landing by Laia Fabregas

The second of my books from Belgravia Books, this one translated from Spanish.

As the book starts, a plane is landing in Amsterdam airport. An elderly Spanish man dies during the landing. The woman sitting next to him, who has heard a bit of his story during the flight, impulsively takes a small box the man had with him, which he was bringing to Holland to give to his son.

After that, the chapters alternate, between what the young woman does next and the old man's memories - he was one of a group of Spanish men who were brought to the Netherlands in the 1960s to work in a factory, and ended up marrying a Dutch woman and staying for decades. Meanwhile the woman (we don't learn either of their names) is on a search for something - we find out what at the book's halfway point.

This is a book about human connections and belonging, and the turning points of a life, whether decisions or coincidences.

Roberto drew an arc on the table, through the triangle. Then he said, "The void fills with movement, the void can only be filled by doing things, moving around. Searching."
"For what?"
"Anything. People who are searching have a goal. They have a reason to get up in the morning, they know that eventually they'll find what they're looking for, and they have a reason to live."
"What are you searching for?"
My question caught him off guard.
"I'm not searching for anything."
"You've found everything you were looking for already?"
"No, I mean I'm not looking for anything in particular, I take what comes, I let life surprise me, knowing that whatever happens it will always be good, or at least there will be something good about it."


This conversation, which takes place towards the end of the book, could be seen as highlighting the difference between the two characters - one a searcher, and one waiting for life to happen to him. But the book also suggests that there is some of each trait in all of us. I enjoyed it.

170kidzdoc
Edited: Oct 9, 2016, 1:03pm Top

Nice set of reviews, and I'll have to remember to visit Belgravia Books the next time I visit London. I'll add The Dyslexic Hearts Club and Landing to my wish list.

ETA: I just noticed that Landing was published by Hispabooks, a relatively new publisher that is translating Spanish literature for an English reading audience. I have a couple of their e-books, and I'll see if I can subscribe to their e-book or print book offerings.

171wandering_star
Oct 9, 2016, 8:52pm Top

How cool that you have a couple of their books already! I'll look out for your reviews.

172auntmarge64
Oct 9, 2016, 10:23pm Top

>21 wandering_star: Just reading through your thread and Remembering Babylon caught my attention, so I've ordered it from Paperback Swap. Thanks!

174wandering_star
Oct 17, 2016, 9:33am Top

>172 auntmarge64: - hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

175wandering_star
Edited: Oct 17, 2016, 10:35am Top

58. Love Story, With Murders by Harry Bingham

The second in the series of mysteries featuring police officer Fiona Griffiths (I read the first one, Talking To The Dead, a couple of months ago).

The main story is gripping and gruesome (a cold-case murder, which comes to light when a young woman's leg is found in a freezer). As the case unfolds, it turns out to have connections to Fiona's personal backstory - the dead woman had worked for a time in one of Fiona's father's strip clubs.

Getting close to her father's work (and especially his earlier days, when he certainly operated on the wrong side of the law) sets off panic and disassociation for Fiona, linked to her troubled teenage years when she suffered from severe disassociation. She believes - although she tries not to think too much about it - that her condition is probably linked to early childhood trauma, but no-one knows anything about her life before she was found at the age of three, in her best dress, sitting in the back seat of an open-topped Jag (whose owner adopted her as his daughter).

So in addition to the main mystery, this book is also an episode in the overall story arc (think the Big Bad in each season of Buffy) in which Fiona tries to discover just what had happened to her - and whether or not it was coincidental that she was left in that particular car.

I really enjoyed this, both because of the mystery story and because I enjoy Fiona's sardonic tone. For example, after Fiona discovers the leg, the next chapter starts: Mayhem rides up the hill and takes possession. The queen of the carnival is Rhiannon Watkins. Rhiannon bloody Watkins. Watkins the badge.

176wandering_star
Edited: Oct 23, 2016, 10:34am Top

59. The Ministry of Guidance Invites You To Not Stay: An American family in Iran by Hooman Majd

Hooman Majd is an Iranian-American journalist. In 2011, he, his wife and young son lived in Iran for a year. This book is a tragically missed opportunity to write something interesting about that experience.

Why a missed opportunity? Because Majd never goes beneath the surface of anything, or tries to use his experiences as a jumping-off point for any wider research or analysis. Instead, it's a collection of 'hey, you'll never guess this crazy thing that happened to me'. Iranians love parties! Iranians love children! My wife was stopped by the morality police because her manteau was too short!

Unless you know nothing at all about Iran, you will not find any insights in this book (well, maybe one - I enjoyed an early chapter about the role of the sulk in Iranian political and wider culture). On the other hand, if you enjoy reading about the travails of New Yorkers unable to find organic baby food in {insert name of location which isn't New York}, you will find it a treat.

No one has really thought of it as a sulk, but the strained relationship, or lack of relationship, between the United States and Iran fits with the Iranian temperament. In a sulk, usually the sulking party wants the other to come to admit its offense, its mistakes, and to correct its behavior. By sulking, the Iranian party also presumes that the other party needs, and will miss, it more than it needs the other. That has been Iran’s position vis-à-vis the United States ever since the hostage crisis of 1979, if not from the moment Ayatollah Khomeini set foot in Tehran nine months before.

177wandering_star
Oct 23, 2016, 10:41am Top

60. Girl Waits With Gun by Amy Stewart

A story of three rather intrepid ladies, living on their own out in the countryside to the horror of their rather more conventional brother (it's 1914). All is well until they cross one of the mill owners in town, a bad 'un who won't let the situation lie. Quite fun, and apparently based on real people, although for me it went on a little bit too long.

Most men of {our brother's} age had an unencumbered female relative or two tucked in an attic bedroom, so he must have seen it as inevitable that he would eventually take on a few as well. He did understand that we would have to be kept occupied, so his schemes always included tedious domestic employment for the three of us.

178wandering_star
Oct 23, 2016, 11:00am Top

61. Handling the Undead by John Ajvide Lindqvist

Handling the Undead is the story of a few days in Stockholm. After a strange electrical storm, all the people who died in the city in the last two months come back to life. Or perhaps it is better to say that their bodies reanimate - their physical state doesn't change (decomposition stops but doesn't reverse), and their personalities don't return either. We follow three stories - the husband of a woman who was dead for the shortest time of any of the "reliving", the mother and grandfather of a toddler who were prostrate with grief at his death, and the wife and granddaughter of an elderly man, both of whom have sensitivities to mystical powers. In some ways this book is about love and grief, although the fact that the reanimated bodies are so different from their living selves reduces the emotional stakes.

Lindqvist is best known for Let The Right One In, an unusual vampire story which was made into a film which managed to be both chilling and poignant. I haven't read the book, although I have seen both the film, and a theatre adaptation. I have previously read Harbour, a horror story about events which take place on an island, some years after a little girl disappeared. Looking back at my review of that, I see that I thought Harbour was interesting but incoherent. Which is not a bad review of Handling the Undead either. I suspect Lindqvist is better at having interesting ideas than he is at writing them up.

In the grief after Elias he had gone over all the things that he would never get to do again: walks in the forest, the playground, juice and sweet rolls at the cafe, the zoo park and more and more and more. But there it was, in all its simplicity: he would never play again, and that was not restricted to Legos and hide-the-key. With Elias’ death, he had lost not only his playmate but also his desire to play. That was why he couldn’t write, that was why pornography no longer stirred him and why the minutes went by so slowly. He couldn’t fantasise any longer, make things up. It should have been a blessed state, to live only in what is, what exists before one’s eyes, not to refashion the world. Should have been. But it wasn’t.

179wandering_star
Oct 23, 2016, 11:12am Top

62. Fragile Things by Neil Gaiman

Do you ever find that if you like the first book you read by a particular author, you continue to think of them as an author you like even if nothing else lives up to that first one? I think that's where I am with Neil Gaiman. I loved American Gods so much that I have continued to persevere with his books even though none of them have had the same impact.

Looking at the LT reviews of the short stories and poems in this collection, it seems that most people think this is a book for the fans. So perhaps it's not a surprise that I found it a little underwhelming, enjoying perhaps half-a-dozen stories from the collection.

“You're a poem?' I repeated.

She chewed her lower lip. 'If you want. I am a poem, or I am a pattern, or a race of people whose whose world was swallowed by the sea.'

'Isn't it hard to be three things at the same time?'

'What's your name?'

'Enn.'

'So you are Enn,' she said. 'And you are a male. And you are a biped. Is it hard to be three things at the same time?”


(From "How to talk to girls at parties", one of the stories I liked)

180wandering_star
Edited: Oct 29, 2016, 12:02am Top

63. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

This book has picked up a lot of buzz, for its story of how Cora, a slave, escapes from her plantation and attempts to flee north on a real underground railroad - with trains and platforms. She experiences life in a number of states each of which has a different approach to race relations, or perhaps I should say to managing the fact that there are African-Americans within their borders, because this is never something that can simply be let be. Some of these ways of managing are more violent than others, but all of them are ultimately fairly bleak. I think, like the underground railroad, none of these polities are historically accurate, but they do reflect things which happened at some time and place (such as sterilising people without their knowledge or consent).

I am glad that I read this book because I think it's important to remember that terrible things like this happened. But most of the time I found it interesting on an intellectual level. Occasionally the story connected in a deeper way - for example when Cora finds work in a museum diorama of Black Life:

After six weeks at the museum, Cora hit upon a rotation that suited her personality. If she started in Typical Day on the Plantation she could get her two plantation shifts finished just after the midday meal. Cora hated the ludicrious slave display and preferred to get it over as soon as possible. The progression from Plantation to Slave Ship to Darkest Africa generated a soothing logic. It was like going back in time, an unwinding of America. Ending her day in Scenes from Darkest Africa never failed to cast her into a river of calm, the simple theater becoming more than theater, a genuine refuge.

I think I appreciated this part because it illuminates a number of wider things which aren't explicitly stated. The way that history is portrayed, that certain people have to perform their identity, that blackness is othered, and also the way that Cora takes this system and makes it her own, by structuring it in a way she likes and (hilariously) by looking back at the museum visitors in a way that makes the point that she is not just a character in a display but a human being and their equal.

But most of the time I think that the characters in the book were types more than they were real people - each one reflected a certain way of thinking about the relationship between the races, which is why I connected intellectually more than emotionally with the book.

181Nickelini
Oct 29, 2016, 2:34am Top

>180 wandering_star: Interesting that your comments reflect what I expect from that book. Still not in any hurry to read it, but I appreciate that it is making known a part of history that should be better known.

182wandering_star
Oct 30, 2016, 2:47am Top

64. Slow Horses by Mick Herron

What happens to an MI6 agent who messes up? They are despatched to Slough House, nicknamed the Slow Horses, and given the most boring, low-level, paperworky jobs to do, mainly in hopes that they'll quit and save the Service the expense of getting rid of them. Most of them shuffle on, getting by on some combination of self-hatred, vicious hatred of others, and alcoholism, until one day a video of a kidnapped man breaks on YouTube. Glued to it like the rest of the country, some of the team realise that it has links to some of the work that they have been doing - but why would anyone put the slow horses on such an important case? Preposterous but good fun.

183kidzdoc
Nov 2, 2016, 12:33am Top

Nice comments about The Underground Railroad, Margaret. It's on my list of books to read this month.

184wandering_star
Edited: Nov 8, 2016, 5:00am Top

65. What We See When We Read by Peter Mendelsund

This is a very intriguing looking book. A black cover with a small golden keyhole, and then the pages themselves are more image than word.



or



It is about the act of reading, and specifically about how the words on the page can conjure images in our minds. I think Mendelsund's main point is that we believe that books conjure images in our minds, but if we examine those images closely they are extremely fuzzy. Not much of an idea to spread across 419 pages, even with all the pictures.

I had been hoping that this would be the sort of book which triggers all sorts of other thoughts and associations, but ultimately I found that it was mostly lines which sounded intriguing but which became less substantial when I thought about them; for example the following lines (which make up a two-page spread):

"To read is: to look through; to look past... though also, to look, myopically, hopefully, toward...
There is very little looking at."

185wandering_star
Nov 8, 2016, 5:00am Top

66. The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths by Harry Bingham

The third book in the Fiona Griffiths series - see books 31 and 58 above for the first two. This is the best so far, and I think could be read without the first two. To recap, Fiona spent her teenage years suffering badly from an (obscure but real) condition called Cotard's syndrome, in which the sufferer believes they are dead. She is recovered from the worst of this, but still has some problems reading other people's emotions and when under stress can start to disassociate from her own body. Cotard's is almost always triggered by early childhood trauma, but Fiona does not know anything about her early years, before the time when she was found sitting in the back seat of an open-top car, whose owner later adopted her. We learnt a little bit about Fiona's backstory in the first book, a lot more in the second.

In this book Fiona uncovers what looks like a potentially major fraud ring, but in order to get to the more senior ringleaders someone needs to go undercover. Potentially the worst possible thing which could happen to someone with a fragile sense of their own self, but the police force knows nothing about her condition and only knows that Fiona did very well at her undercover training. So she is off, relying increasingly on her own wit and that of her other persona, a timid, down-on-her-luck woman who is just right for the criminals to pick on.

But more interesting to me is the way I feel Fiona Grey's emotions more easily than my own. I've been frightened before, of course, and fear is one of the feelings that, I think, I identify more reliably than some others. But still. Fiona Grey feels fear and - boom! - it's there throughout her body. She feels it with an immediacy and naturalness that I seldom manage on my own account.

This is more of a thriller than a mystery proper, as the reader doesn't have the possibility of working out who the guilty party is. I really enjoyed it and was with Fiona all the way, with her bold determination to track down the criminals, and her stupidly brave plan to risk losing herself.

186bragan
Nov 8, 2016, 11:59am Top

>184 wandering_star: I found that book theoretically interesting, but so frustrating in reality. He just seemed so incapable of even considering that other people's experiences might be different from his own. My main response to the whole book, as someone who doesn't really even have the illusion of visualizing things, was "What do you mean, we?"

187wandering_star
Nov 12, 2016, 7:51pm Top

>183 kidzdoc: Looking forward to hearing your thoughts on it, Darryl!

>184 wandering_star: That's a really good point. I don't think I have any illusion of visualising things either. I guess I am used to people talking about a 'normal' response to something and quietly going along with it in order to fit in. I wonder how common it actually is?

188wandering_star
Nov 12, 2016, 8:28pm Top

11 Nov was my tenth Thingaversary!

This is the haul:

1 & 2. The Penguin Book of the British Short Story volumes 1 & 2 - I got the nice solid-looking hardback editions, which I have been coveting since they came out
3. Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives - anthology of suspense/thriller stories by female pulp writers in the mid-C20th
4. Chief of Station, Congo - a memoir by the CIA station chief in Congo in the 1960s - I bought this because I recently found out that a family member had been involved in similar work and it made me curious to know more about what it was like
5. Hild - historical fiction, C7th Britain, the life of the woman who later became St Hilda
6. How Music Works by David Byrne - essays on music
7. Consiglieri: leading from the shadows by Richard Hytner - a book about being the second-in-command or assistant to the leader - saw this in a shop and it looks fun and intriguing (and relevant for my current job!)
8. Innocence by Penelope Fitzgerald - one of my favourite writers, and the last 'major' work of hers I haven't read
9. The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry - because her first book, After Me Comes The Flood, was pretty intriguing
10. Building Jerusalem by Tristram Hunt, about the development of cities (and civic pride) in Victorian Britain, on my wishlist since reading the same author's Ten Cities That Made An Empire, a book which really did set off lots of ideas and trains of thoughts for me

My +1 book (the one for the future) is Rebecca Solnit's Hope In The Dark, a book about the history of positive transformation through activism and the importance of staying engaged and trying to create progressive change, however bad things seem. At the moment the publishers are giving the ebook away for free - use this link.

189dchaikin
Nov 12, 2016, 11:43pm Top

I followed your link and got an e-copy of Solnit's Hope in the Dark. Thanks for posting the link.

190wandering_star
Edited: Nov 26, 2016, 4:02am Top

67. Blue Latitudes: boldly going where Captain Cook has gone before by Tony Horwitz

This is a travelogue and history, following the journeys of Captain Cook, mainly through the Pacific. It's unfashionable to be interested in this period of history, but one day Horwitz picked up a volume of Cook's journals and became fascinated. He conveys that enthusiasm with his descriptions of the voyages, bringing out fascinating stories such as that of Tupaia, a Tahitian navigator and priest who joined Cook's expedition of his own free will, and who supported it with his navigational skills and sometimes acted as an interpreter with other Pacific peoples - there are accounts of him having discussions with Maoris about religion. This is a picture that he painted, possibly depicting himself, along with one of the Europeans on the voyage (and an enormous lobster).



Perhaps most fascinating is the account by an elderly Maori names Te Horeta who lived long enough to pass on his memories of seeing Cook's men arrive - initially thought by the clan elders to be goblins, and who offered Te Horeta and his friends the most horrible food (salted meat and hard tack).

One of the things that Horwitz does wherever he goes is ask about the legacy and modern-day perceptions of Cook and his voyages. Most people don't care, and for those who do care the history is very contested. But Cook himself is a complex character in a way which none of the official history, whether critical or celebratory, seems to remember. He was apparently hugely disturbed by the decline in the culture of the Pacific islands when he visited them for the second time, and saw the combined impact of missionaries and Western disease (often sexually transmitted). He seems to have been someone who prided himself on thinking independently and not just accepting assumptions, and commented that the aboriginal Australians had the benefit of not knowing inequality, whereas most of the other Western observers saw their lack of possessions as evidence of "native brutishness".

An ironic theme which recurs through the book is that the original culture of the islands was destroyed so thoroughly by later missionaries that the records kept by Cook and those travelling with him are sometimes all that remains. This is a picture drawn during the voyage in Alaska, and the piercing and tattoos on this young woman are now a model for young Aleuts wanting to revive their traditional culture.



Horwitz also meets a young Maori activist who is using Cook's record as evidence of her tribe's long-term pattern of settlement in a particular area.

And here is a painting by a Hawaiian artist of the death of Captain Cook. The artist, Herb Kawainui Kane, was inspired by the watercolours made by the ship's artist, but has updated it according to his own research and added the vivid colours of an early morning in Hawaii.



So, some fascinating history. The modern travelogue elements of the book are a bit more hit and miss, particularly when Horwitz's friend Roger - an alcoholic and politically incorrect Brit - is along for the ride. His purpose seems to be to provide comic relief, a bit like the comic 'lower orders' scenes in Shakespeare plays, and about as welcome. When he first appeared it almost put me off continuing with the book. The actual history is interesting enough not to need this.

191wandering_star
Nov 26, 2016, 10:26pm Top

68. Back to Bologna by Michael Dibdin

It turns out I haven't read one of the Aurelio Zen detective novels in a long time - if my LT record is to be believed, not since sometime before 2009! While this one was entertaining, I'm not sure it was the right one to break my dry spell with, as it's a bit of a squib - essentially, a traditional farce in the format of a detective story, with lots of mistaken identity, people disguised as each other, chance meetings with major consequences, and an intricate plot which magically resolves itself in the end. And a semiotics professor who is a parody of Umberto Eco. Not what I was expecting - but once I worked it out it was a fun read.

192wandering_star
Nov 29, 2016, 11:31am Top

A couple of weekends ago I had a great time rooting through a used book sale at my library. I just found this lovely photo essay about the book sale: https://tomwuthipol.exposure.co/neilson-hays-library

193This-n-That
Dec 2, 2016, 4:39pm Top

>192 wandering_star: Candid shots of people looking for books. Interesting! I cannot say that I have seen anything like that before.

194wandering_star
Dec 5, 2016, 12:23pm Top

I placed a jar in Tennessee
because I could not stop for death
to see a world in a grain of sand
where Alph, the sacred river, ran.

Nobody heard him, the dead man
Alone and palely loitering,
rage, rage against the dying of
the golden apples of the sun.

You stand at the blackboard, daddy.
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.
And for that minute a blackbird sang.
What will survive of us is love.


This rather poignant mash-up of famous lines of poetry comes from 69. Artful by Ali Smith, the text of four lectures which she gave as a visiting professor in European Comparative Literature in 2012. Their titles are - are they puns? Or at least phrases with double meanings - On Time, On Form, On Edge, and finally On Offer and On Reflection.

The format is not a traditional lecture, but a mix of lecture and a hint of story. The narrator, bereaved after a 25-year relationship, is looking through some lecture notes which her partner left behind. The lectures are partly fragmentary, as are the glimpses into the narrator and lecturer's life together. Does the format work? Not entirely - I can't particularly see a reason to do it this way except to excuse the fact that sometimes connections are only very loosely made - but even so it is full of Ali Smith's trademarks of wordplay and humanity. And the many beautiful poems and insightful pieces of writing make it a worthwhile read.

Ali Smith was recently on Desert Island Discs - one of her choices, a Greek film star and singer, also features heavily in Artful.

I'm late, you said. You're -, I said.

Late, you said again, and brushed at your arms and shoulders. I'm later than -. I'm later than -. Than -.

You're later than a rabbit in Alice, I said because that's what you'd always said when you were late.

195wandering_star
Edited: Dec 15, 2016, 11:44am Top

70. Summer Blonde by Adrian Tomine

This collection of four short stories in comic/graphic novel format is tremendously depressing. They each focus on someone who doesn't like themself, and as a result they are horrible both to themselves and to other people. After the first couple of stories, in which the main character is male, I thought that they were very misogynistic. The final two stories have female central characters who were equally self-hating and horrible to others, so perhaps were not misogynistic, but left me with the same nasty taste in my mouth.

196wandering_star
Dec 15, 2016, 11:37am Top

71. The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley

Following the discovery of a body in the modern day, a man thinks back to a strange incident which took place in his youth, during a pilgrimage to a shrine in rural Lancashire in which his church was hoping to heal one of their congregation - the brother of our narrator.

This book has almost everything a good gothic horror needs - an eerie location (shifting sands and marshland), dreich weather, unsettling behaviour by both the locals and church members, both of whom follow mysterious rituals with an undercurrent of violence. So why do I say almost everything? Well, for me anyway, none of this added up to an atmosphere - it was like having all the ingredients of a recipe but not having cooked it yet. I couldn't help comparing it to After Me Comes The Flood, which took a pretty normal set of circumstances and somehow imbued it with a sense that something terrible was looming in the near future.

I do think The Loney would make an excellent film or graphic novel, as the images might be better at conveying that sense of unease which was missing from the writing.

I often thought there was too much time there. That the place was sick with it. Haunted by it. Time didn't leak away as it should. There was nowhere for it to go and no modernity to hurry it along. It collected as the black water did on the marshes and remained and stagnated in the same way.

197This-n-That
Dec 15, 2016, 1:36pm Top

>195 wandering_star: Yeesh, that book sounds awful. Sometimes I am surprised stuff like that gets published.

198wandering_star
Dec 15, 2016, 7:21pm Top

72. Master & Commander by Patrick O'Brian

This book probably needs no introduction - the first in the incredibly popular and long-running 20-book series about a Royal Navy ship during the Napoleonic Wars, and the friendship between its captain Jack Aubrey and the ship's surgeon Stephen Maturin.

I picked it up because the film Master & Commander is one of my favourites, whose qualities I think have been under-recognised - perhaps because those who are not fans of the books assumed they wouldn't be interested in the film, and those who are fans may have been put off by how different the film is from the story in the book - as I have now discovered!

The theme of the film is really around the importance of being yourself, whatever that self is, rather than trying to be someone else. Aubrey and Maturin are very different people but each comes into their own at different times, as do many other members of the crew.

The theme of the book... well, to be honest, it seems to be mostly about boats. I believe that good writing can make the reader gripped by a topic that they wouldn't normally be interested in - I enjoy reading Bernard Cornwell's military novels which describe the tactics of fighting battles, for example - but I really did end up skimming through a lot of the more nautical stuff here. I may read the second as I understand that the story in the film is a combination of events from both book one and two - just to see how it was done. But I don't think the full 20-book series will be for me!

199wandering_star
Edited: Dec 15, 2016, 8:07pm Top

73. The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

A patched-up spaceship full of misfits journeys to a new job of work. It's a long way in the future - much of the universe is governed by the Galactic Commons, a massive alliance of different species, including the remnants of humanity, although they are a relatively small and insignificant species compared to the main members of the GC. (Harmagians had money. Aeluons had firepower. Aandrisks had diplomacy. Humans had arguments.)

The work of the ship is to punch wormholes in space to support new intergalactic routes. The ship has been given a lucrative, but dangerous piece of work - to link up with a newly allied species, and one which is infamously conflict-prone. It will take them a year to get there, and as they travel through space we come to know them and learn a bit about their species' culture. The humans on board include the punky, rebellious techs, the misanthropic algaeist (who tends the vats of ship's fuel), the quiet clerk with her new illegal identity; then there is the ship's doctor and cook, who comes from a species which is dying out - the pilot whose species have a reptilian exterior but a culture which is full of warmth, affection and love - the navigator whose species deliberately infect themselves with a disease because it gives them tremendous mental abilities - and so on.

I loved this book. I enjoyed the world-building - the many different cultures, and the way that humanity has developed and changed (a few clever touches such as the fact that most people consider eating meat that came from a live animal rather than a vat to be a completely gross idea) - and I especially enjoyed the close and supportive friendships between the different characters.

He sat thinking, watching her light shine between his fingers. He thought of the familiar insides of the walls of the ship, the way Ashby trusted him to tweak them just right. He thought of the groove in his mattress that fit no one but him. He thought of drinking mek in the Fishbowl, Sissix laughing, Dr. Chef humming. He thought of Kizzy, who he knew he’d be sitting with in some sketchy spacer bar sixty years down the road, both of them old and obnoxious. “Yeah,” he said quietly. “Yeah, I’m sure.”

One of my favourite reads last year was the Ancillary Mercy series, and while this is not as good - it's a bit more message-y and has a lot less plot - it's in the same section of the Venn diagram. And I can deal with the message-y-ness - I think at the moment we can all do with messages about the value of difference and diversity and seeing the best in people who are not like yourself.

200bragan
Dec 16, 2016, 3:30pm Top

>198 wandering_star: I felt the same way about Master and Commander. All the nautical stuff just went in one ear and out the other, and didn't excite me about the series very much. (Especially after reading the Horatio Hornblower novels, which made the nautical stuff easier to digest, somehow.) But I did go on to the next book, and liked that a lot better. The stuff that makes my eyes glaze over was still there, but the plot and character aspects started to get a lot more interesting, enough to make it feel quite worthwhile. I've stalled out on the series for a little while after getting through volume four, for various reasons, but am planning to get back to it next year. I'd say it's definitely worth giving the second volume a shot to see if it captures your attention better.

201wandering_star
Dec 16, 2016, 10:14pm Top

>200 bragan: Thanks, good advice! I really enjoyed the start of the book but it tailed off a bit, I think after the explanation of which masts were which... I will definitely try the second volume.

202wandering_star
Jan 7, 2017, 12:33am Top

A couple more reviews to finish off last year's reading.

74. Inspector Imanishi Investigates by Seicho Matsumoto

A corpse is discovered in a railyard in Tokyo. But no-one matching his description is missing, and pretty much the only clue the police have to go on is a fragment of conversation overheard in a bar the night before the murder. However, through lengthy and patient detective work, Inspector Imanishi gradually begins to piece together the clues, to discover who the dead man is, what brought him to Tokyo, and why he ended up brutally murdered.

A lot of Japanese crime fiction seems to be grounded in the changing nature of Japanese society, and this is no exception. Given that it is set in the 1960s it is a particularly interesting period of change. The physical impact of World War Two is still very much there in the cityscape, but society is moving away from the postwar years to the avant-garde 1960s.

203wandering_star
Jan 7, 2017, 12:39am Top

75. At Large and At Small, a collection of essays by Anne Fadiman.

One of my go-to book-related gifts is Ex Libris, Fadiman's essays on books and reading. The topics in this collection range more broadly, from Coleridge to ice-cream, from moving house to being a night owl. When I realised this, I was initially quite disappointed as I had been hoping for Ex Libris Mk II. But goodness, Fadiman can write - and almost always brings a fresh perspective to her subjects. I enjoyed this a lot.

Although I never became a teetotaler, I knew - especially when I woke up the next morning with a hangover - that I would cast my lot with caffeine, not with alcohol. Why would I wish my senses to be dulled when they could be sharpened? Why would I wish to forget when I could remember? Why would I wish to mumble when I could scintillate? Of course, since even in those days I was a loquacious workaholic who liked to stay up late, you might think I'd pick a drug that would nudge me closer to the center of the bell curve instead of pushing me farther out on the edge - but of course I didn't. Who does? Don't we all just keep doing the things that make us even more like ourselves?

204wandering_star
Jan 7, 2017, 12:47am Top

My 2017 thread is here.

Group: Club Read 2016

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