Rebeki reads on in 2018
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Hello fellow Club Read-ers, and a belated Happy New Year!
This will be my seventh year in Club Read and, while I'm pleased I managed to keep last year's thread going throughout the year, I wasn't a very sociable member of the group. I'm hoping that I'll find time in 2018 to participate more actively.
Life and politics conspired to make 2016 a poor reading year for me, but, towards the end of it, I began to rediscover my enjoyment of reading, so that 2017 was possibly the best yet in this respect: I read 18 books with my son and 39 "grown-up" books, among which there was barely a dud. Conversely, I'd be hard pushed to single out one or two favourites. With my son, I enjoyed (re)discovering Jill Murphy's The Worst Witch series, while completing Miklós Bánffy's Transylvanian Trilogy and Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan Novels brought me pleasure and satisfaction. Other memorable reads were I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou, The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton, Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami, Autumn by Ali Smith and Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout.
I hope that my 2018 reading will be just as good!
I don't make plans for my reading, or, rather, I keep any plans I may have in my head, since putting them in writing seems to guarantee they won't come to anything! However, I'm hoping it's not too risky to say that I'd like to continue my (gradual) chronological re-read of Margaret Atwood's novels so that I can (i) finally watch the TV adaptation of The Handmaid's Tale; (ii) eventually move on to her Maddaddam Trilogy and beyond. Obviously I could do both these things without the re-read, but that's too easy!
More than anything, though, I want to reduce my TBR pile significantly. I had some success with this last year, after joining the ROOTs group. Through a combination of reading from my shelves, culling books that no longer interested me and getting to new acquisitions more quickly, I managed to get my TBR total down from 220 to 195. I know this isn't a large number by LT standards, but it's still overwhelming to a slowish reader like me and I would prefer to acquire and read books as they take my fancy, instead of stockpiling them. I used to enjoy trawling second-hand bookshops to see what treasures I could find, but these days I would rather buy a carefully-selected full-price new book. I'd therefore like to cut drastically the number of books I buy and, if I do give into temptation, to read any newly acquired books more or less straight away. Wish me luck!
Books read in 2018
1. Vacant Possession by Hilary Mantel (TBR, bought in 2013)
2. Matilda by Roald Dahl (re-read, read with my son)
3. Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor (TBR, bought in 2017)
4. Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada (TBR, bought in 2010)
5. Lady Oracle by Margaret Atwood (re-read)
6. Ottoline and the Yellow Cat by Chris Riddell (read with my son)
7. Looking for Transwonderland: Travels in Nigeria by Noo Saro-Wiwa (TBR, birthday present 2017)
8. Revolution Baby by Joanna Gruda (bought in 2018)
9. Harry the Poisonous Centipede's Big Adventure by Lynne Reid Banks (library book, read with my son)
10. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens (TBR, bought in 2012)
11. Upstairs at the Party by Linda Grant (TBR, bought in 2016)
12. Le Fait du prince by Amélie Nothomb (TBR, bought in 2015)
13. Life Before Man by Margaret Atwood (re-read)
14. The Handsome Man's Deluxe Café by Alexander McCall Smith (TBR, bought in 2016)
15. Harry the Poisonous Centipede Goes to Sea by Lynne Reid Banks (read with my son)
16. Amrita by Banana Yoshimoto (bought in 2018)
17. Billy Bunter and the Blue Mauritius by Frank Richards (borrowed)
18. Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (library book)
19. Invitation to the Waltz by Rosamond Lehmann (TBR, bought in 2008)
20. Midwinter Break by Bernard MacLaverty (bought in 2018)
21. How to Be a Pirate by Cressida Cowell (read with my son)
22. Bodily Harm by Margaret Atwood (re-read)
23. Precious and the Monkeys by Alexander McCall Smith (library book, read with my son)
24. The Weather in the Streets by Rosamond Lehmann (TBR, bought in 2008)
25. Precious and the Mystery of Meerkat Hill by Alexander McCall Smith (library book, read with my son)
26. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (library book)
27. Claude in the Country by Alex T. Smith (read with my son)
28. Gather Together in My Name by Maya Angelou (TBR, bought in 2017)
29. The Nakano Thrift Shop by Hiromi Kawakami (re-read, bought in 2018)
30. The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood (re-read)
31. The Muse by Jessie Burton (library book, reading group)
32. Fair Play by Tove Jansson (TBR, bought in 2017)
33. The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton (bought in 2018)
34. A Glass of Blessings by Barbara Pym (TBR, bought in 2016)
35. All That I Am by Anna Funder (TBR, Christmas present 2013)
36.The Northern Clemency by Philip Hensher (TBR, bought in 2009)
37. The Travelling Cat Chronicles by Hiro Arikawa (Mothering Sunday present 2018)
38. Moominpappa at Sea by Tove Jansson (read with my son)
39. How to Speak Dragonese by Cressida Cowell (read with my son)
40. The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry (TBR, Christmas present 2017)
41. The Tortoise and the Hare by Elizabeth Jenkins (TBR, bought in 2017)
42. The Dangerous Journey by Tove Jansson (bought in 2018, read with my son)
43. Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata (bought in 2018)
44. Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kästner (read with my son)
45. Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout (birthday present 2018)
46. How to Cheat a Dragon's Curse by Cressida Cowell (read with my son)
47. The Odd Women by George Gissing (TBR, bought in 2010)
48. The Woman Who Walked in Sunshine by Alexander McCall Smith (bought in 2018)
49. The Idiot by Elif Batuman (bought in 2018)
50. Goth Girl and the Ghost of a Mouse by Chris Riddell (read with my son)
51. Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto (library book)
52. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman (borrowed from a friend)
53. L'idée ridicule de ne plus jamais te revoir by Rosa Montero(present from a friend 2018)
Como agua para chocolate by Laura Esquivel
What Are You Looking At?: 150 Years of Modern Art in the Blink of an Eye by Will Gompertz
My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh
Gin, Glorious Gin: How Mother's Ruin Became the Spirit of London by Olivia Williams (bought March 2018)
Stay With Me by Ayòbámi Adebayo (bought April 2018)
The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton (bought June 2018)
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles (bought June 2018)
Carol (The Price of Salt) by Patricia Highsmith (bought July 2018)
Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea by Teffi (birthday present)
Birds Art Life Death: The Art of Noticing the Small and Significant by Kyo Maclear (birthday present)
What Are You Looking At?: 150 Years of Modern Art in the Blink of an Eye by Will Gompertz (birthday present, currently reading)
Bleak House by Charles Dickens (bought July 2018)
Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas by Maya Angelou (bought July 2018)
The Heart of a Woman by Maya Angelou (bought July 2018)
Bosnian Chronicle by Ivo Andrić (bought August 2018)
A Game of Hide and Seek by Elizabeth Taylor (bought August 2018)
Writing Home by Alan Bennett (bought August 2018)
All God's Children Need Travelling Shoes by Maya Angelou (bought August 2018)
The House of Unexpected Sisters by Alexander McCall Smith (bought September 2018)
My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh (bought November 2018, currently reading)
just stopping by and waving hello. Love that you and your son read so much together.
>4 dchaikin: Hi Dan, thanks for stopping by. I plan to venture out and visit other threads later!
Rather excitingly, my son has recently started reading independently, but I'm hoping that won't mean he loses his enthusiasm for listening to me read to him.
Vacant Possession by Hilary Mantel
This sequel to Every Day is Mother’s Day is set 10 years later, in the mid-eighties. While Muriel remained a somewhat opaque character in the first book and ultimately under her mother’s control, here we have access to the inner workings of her mind as she takes charge of her life – with horrifying results.
Her sights are set on the Sidney family, older, even more chaotic and occupying Muriel’s old home, and Isabel Field, her brittle former social worker. Old connections are revealed between the characters and new ones emerge, with Muriel poised at every moment to turn the situation to her advantage.
Muriel is simultaneously awful, fascinating and pitiful and it is impossible not to admire her cunning and her ability to slip into different guises. The events of the first novel prepared me for the fact that things would not end prettily, but this is a humorous novel above all, so I sat back and enjoyed the ride.
It goes without saying that Mantel’s writing and observations are razor-sharp, and I enjoyed the shift in decade. Both books featuring Muriel Axon read like period pieces in terms of their cultural references – the DHSS and the three-million unemployment figure crop repeatedly in this novel – but feel as fresh as if completed just last week.
Thinking about Wolf Hall, the only Mantel I've read, Muriel seems like a character Mantel could pull off wonderfully. Noting this book and Every Day is Mother's Day...which I now see are her first two books.
>3 Rebeki: I see you are reading Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada. Did you know this about the author and genesis of the book?
Hans Fallada, the alias for Rudolf Ditzen, wrote his last novel, Every Man Dies Alone, in 24 days and died of a morphine overdose before it could be published. A man tortured by substance abuse and his ambivalent relationship with the Nazis, Fallada wrote prolifically but with few successes. After stints in hospitals and even an insane asylum, Fallada was shown a Gestapo file by a friend and told it would make a good story. The file was on a German couple who resisted the Reich by dispersing hand-written postcards denouncing Hitler and the war throughout Berlin. Fallada uses the basic plot suggested by the file to create the novel.
I'll be curious to see what you think of the book.
>9 labfs39: Hi Lisa, I knew that the novel was inspired by the actions of real people, but not that much about Hans Fallada himself - how sad it all sounds. There are sections at the end of the book about the author and the real-life Quangels, although I'll save those for when I've finished the novel proper.
I'm "enjoying" it so far, though dreading what is to come. Although the book is very readable, I'm progressing at a slow pace, because I can no longer read anything depressing/disturbing before bed, so I always have a "daytime" and "night-time" book on the go! I expect to be able to do a bit more daytime reading in the coming week...
>10 Cait86: Hi Cait, I'm about to start Lady Oracle as my night-time book (see above!) and then it'll be Life Before Man for me too. I'll be having a break between books though. I recall enjoying Lady Oracle but not being so sure about Life Before Man. However, I think I've changed quite a bit since I read them, so it'll be interesting to see how I respond to them this time.
Oops, Colleen's post has made me realise I missed some comments upthread.
>7 dchaikin:, >12 NanaCC: I came to Mantel through Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies too, and I certainly found the latter a tighter, more gripping read (inevitably, I suppose, since it covered a shorter timespan). The books of hers I've read since - An Experiment in Love, Beyond Black, Eight Months on Ghazzah Street, Every Day is Mother's Day and Vacant Possession - have all had a definite darkness and edginess to them, and often a supernatural element. Each book is quite different, but I can't get enough of her writing.
>8 ipsoivan: Hi Maggie, good luck with your efforts to reduce your TBR. I hope we both have a successful year!
>14 japaul22: Hi Jennifer, that's good to hear! I was thinking to try that one next, although I may read her memoir, Giving up the Ghost first.
I remember your reading A Place of Greater Safety a few years ago, after some diligent preparatory reading. Inspired by that, I went out and bought a book on the French Revolution. Needless to say, both that book and Mantel's novel remain on my shelves unread!
>12 NanaCC:, >13 Rebeki: I've only read Wolf Hall, and was thinking I would, leave it at that. I mean I enjoyed it, and I have mild interest in reading more, but there are a lot of books. But thinking through what was she did with Cromwell and how she could apply that to how Rebecca describes Muriel in her review of Vacant Possessions - cunning and maleable and dark - has my imagination going.
Catching up on January's reads:
Matilda by Roald Dahl
A re-read of a childhood favourite for me and a new read for my son. It’s definitely the most grown-up of the Roald Dahls we’ve read together and my son (6½) was a little upset by the tricks Matilda played on her father, even if he wasn’t a very nice person. However, he seemed to have got over the darker nature of the book by the time the horrendous Miss Trunchbull appeared, and enjoyed the story.
I was older than him when I first read Matilda, but I think my son experienced the same longing as me to be as advanced in reading as Matilda and started asking me about Charles Dickens. I assured him that Matilda was exceptional (and not real) and that he’d be better off waiting a few years! However, I did promise to make a start myself on Great Expectations, which has been sitting on my shelves for nearly six years, and then tell him about it :)
Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor
I started this book as something light to read alongside Alone in Berlin and ended up racing through it.
The elderly and recently widowed Mrs Palfrey arrives one gloomy Sunday to take up residence at the Claremont Hotel. She is not at all sure she is going to enjoy this change of lifestyle, but, being a resilient woman, determines to make the best of it. While the majority of guests are tourists or other short-term visitors, Mrs Palfrey soon gets to know a handful of other elderly long-term residents. Their routines and personal quirks and foibles are described to great comic effect but are also very believable. In this isolated existence, a visit from a relative confers great status and, feeling at a disadvantage on this point, Mrs Palfrey is pleased to make the chance acquaintance of a charming (and penniless) young man.
This novel is funny and warm-hearted and easy to read, but is also matter of fact about the loneliness of old age and the unwitting cruelty of younger generations towards their elders. A poignant, bittersweet read.
Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada
I have had this book for almost eight years, but it has taken me this long to summon up the courage to read it. For anyone unfamiliar with the story, it concerns an unremarkable middle-aged couple, Otto and Anna Quangel, who decide, in their own small way, to take a stand against the Nazi regime by distributing anti-Hitler postcards. Based on the real-life case of Otto and Elise Hampel, it is clear how things will end, but, for all that, I found it a surprisingly enjoyable read.
With its curious mix of past and present tense narration, which took a little getting used to, the writing feels very immediate, and although at first events seem to unfold slowly, as we are introduced to a cast of secondary characters and the cautious Otto decides on his plan of action, the pace picks up as the first postcards are found, and a cat-and-mouse story ensues.
Most books I’ve read that touch on life under the Nazis have tended to deal with the situation for Jewish people, with people attempting to escape to other, safer countries or with people who are part of an organised resistance, so it was interesting to see what life was like for “ordinary” Germans, decent and otherwise, under this oppressive and poisonous regime. Through the character of Inspector Escherich, the Gestapo officer initially in charge of the investigation into the mysterious postcard distributor, we can see that no one was exempt from the poison and terror.
In spite of the inevitable conclusion and the limited impact of the Quangels’ campaign, there is a feeling of redemption, that the Quangels, and others like them, have won because they have kept their integrity. Through one of the purely fictional plotlines, Fallada also chooses to end the novel on a hopeful note, which, from an author who clearly had plenty of troubles in his own life, I very much appreciated.
I am now interested to read more of Fallada’s work. At times I found the down-to-earth writing and the flawed characters reminiscent of Patrick Hamilton, a favourite author of mine and another troubled soul, and I imagine this similarity may come through even more strongly in some of Fallada’s other novels.
Lady Oracle by Margaret Atwood
I continued my (slow) chronological re-read of Margaret Atwood's novels with this, her third novel. I remember enjoying it when I first read it in 2006, but could recall little of the plot. This is not surprising, considering the constant movement back and forth through time and the narrator's multiple lives and identities.
Joan Foster has faked her death and fled Canada for a remote Italian town. As she looks back over her life thus far, this drastic step starts to seem to the reader less unhinged than it first appears. There are some heartbreaking childhood incidents, reminiscent of Cat's Eye, but with the addition of a troubled, cruel mother, and, as in The Edible Woman and Surfacing, Atwood's two earlier novels, a sense of woman pursued and not permitted simply to be.
However, there is also a great deal of humour, some eccentric yet somehow believable characters, some unintentionally funny intellectuals, including the dreadful Arthur, and a heroine you can't help but root for, even if she's incapable of telling the truth. And, along the way, some carefully placed extracts from the pulp historical romances Joan excels at writing, which come to mirror the developments in her own life.
It was all such good fun that I'm feeling slight trepidation about the next Atwood I'll be reading, Life Before Man, which I remember being far less warm and humorous an affair.
Three great posts. Love that your son is eyeing Dickens. And this last post is the kind that makes Fallada sound more appealing and less like an assignment, if that makes sense. (ETA - posted before I saw the Atwood review. Wondering if more is coming)
Ottoline and the Yellow Cat by Chris Riddell
This was a quirky book about a girl called Ottoline, who lives in a city that looks remarkably like NYC and has been left in the care of a hairy Norwegian creature called Mr Munroe by her travelling parents. When Ottoline and Mr Munroe notice that a series of dog thefts and burglaries have been occurring on their street, they decide to investigate.
Appealingly laid out and full of illustrations, this would make a good book for a child getting to grips with reading by themselves, but I insisted on reading it to my son, because it looked too good to miss out on! Actually, I was concerned the humour might be a bit quirky for him, but that seemed not to be the case. For my part, I was deeply envious of Ottoline, whose absent parents had arranged all manner of services to make sure she was looked after: home-cooked meals, pillow-plumping, cleaning, lightbulb-changing etc. Sounds great!
>22 dchaikin: Hi Dan, just the one above for now! Yes, I had felt that Alone in Berlin would be a worthy but difficult read, but it was a genuinely enjoyable experience. After not being able to face this sort of subject-matter last year, I feel I now have the courage to start some other books I've been putting off.
Interesting reviews. Like you I read Lady Oracle years ago, and also don't remember much about it. Thanks for the refresher.
>25 janeajones: I'm actually hoping the details don't stick too well this time either, so that I can have fun rediscovering it all over again!
I've enjoyed catching up with your reviews. Particularly interested in Lady Oracle, which I didn't really know anything about before, but now I feel I need to check out.
Such a variety of reading. I miss reading aloud to my daughter or even co-reading the same book. Now she's off on her own and frequently reading online. It's fun to hear about the books you read your son and his reactions.
Hi Rebeki! We must have been in another group together before, because I recognize your name. I have put the Mantel books on my wishlist as I have already read her book Bring up the Bodies.
Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont sounds delightful. I'll stay away from Alone in Berlin for the same reason I can't bring myself to watch "Schindler's List". But I appreciate your review of the Fallada book. It's good to be aware of people who have the courage to hold on to their integrity, something I always hope I would do in such a situation.
I can't believe I haven't posted on here for two months. I haven't stopped reading, but I've struggled to find time to write reviews, let along manage to post on LT.
Thanks to all who've visited, and sorry for taking so long to respond!
>27 valkyrdeath: It's not a heavyweight like The Handmaid's Tale or The Blind Assassin, but it's good fun!
>28 baswood: Thank you! I was afraid of not doing it justice.
>29 labfs39: It does feel like this is a precious time. I already feel I'm missing out on the books my son's reading independently. OK, not so much the Beast Quest series, but some of the others seem fun.
>30 avaland: I've been thinking about an Atwood re-read for a few years, since Cait86 had the idea. This year in particular I feel that my reading is a tricky balancing act between re-reads, my TBR pile and new books. This will sound a bit weird, but things that have happened in the past couple of years and changes in my life have made me feel the need to reassess and pin down who I am as a person. Rereading my long-time favourite author is reassuring and helpful in this respect!
>31 tess_schoolmarm: Hi Tess, good to see you here. I'm a ROOTer too, although also neglecting my thread over there!
>32 auntmarge64: It is delightful! Yes, I understand your wanting to avoid Alone in Berlin. Last year I couldn't have managed it. I've just abandoned Look Who's Back, because, no matter that it's poking fun at him, I just can't bear to spend any time in the company of Adolf Hitler.
Catching up on February's reads:
Looking for Transwonderland: Travels in Nigeria by Noo Saro-Wiwa
Noo Saro-Wiwa is a journalist who was born in Nigeria but moved to Britain at a young age. As a child, she was forced to spend her summers in her country of birth, but these visits ceased in her early teens and, following her activist father Ken Saro-Wiwa’s imprisonment and murder in Nigeria, never resumed. This book is the result of Noo Saro-Wiwa’s attempt to face her demons and visit the country with fresh eyes and an open mind, as a tourist might.
I have no particular desire to visit Nigeria, but have a fascination with it all the same, probably as a result of reading and enjoying some contemporary Nigerian fiction. Before I read Half of a Yellow Sun I had no idea that Nigeria as a country was made up of various ethnic groups, with none of them forming an overwhelming majority. After reading Looking for Transwonderland, I realise that the country is far more diverse than I could have imagined. For instance, I’d never heard of the Ogoni people, to which the Saro-Wiwa family belong. While the author feels at home in the south of Nigeria – or as at home as her English accent and habits allow – the Muslim north is a foreign country to her. It is a wonder that these various regions have been put together to form one state, or perhaps not when you learn that it’s the result of a late British colonial takeover.
This book is more travelogue than a history though, and one that would probably not have been half as interesting without Saro-Wiwa’s dual insider/outsider perspective and understandable mixed feelings towards the country of her birth. The main message I took away was that Nigeria is a diverse country of great natural wealth and beauty and with a rich history that, without the government’s focus on oil above all else, and the concomitant corruption, could flourish as a tourist destination and as a desirable place to live. It’s hard not to share Saro-Wiwa’s frustration at the missed opportunities.
Revolution Baby by Joanna Gruda
I was initially drawn to this book by the title and the author’s Polish-sounding name, but kept umming and ahhing over it in Waterstones. I was very happy, therefore, to discover a pristine second-hand copy at an Oxfam Bookshop while on holiday. The main reason for my hesitation was my not wanting to buy a depressing book that was likely to end up sitting on my shelves unread for a long time to come. In spite of the playful cover, the story of a Jewish boy growing up in Poland in the years before the Second World War and later living through that war in France sounded like it had the potential for much darkness.
In fact, Revolution Baby turned out to be an engaging, refreshing and often amusing read about a resilient and resourceful boy, Julek, who must navigate the perils of wartime France when his mother is a Communist and member of the Resistance. It possibly helps that the novel is based on the real experiences of Gruda’s father, who went on to emigrate to Canada and lead a long and happy life there. And this real-life element allowed me to forgive what I might otherwise have considered a plot weakness: Julek’s numerous moves from one temporary home to another, which didn’t do much in terms of driving the story forward. As it was, though, this was a highly enjoyable read!
Harry the Poisonous Centipede’s BIG Adventure by Lynne Reid Banks
My son had already read the first Harry the Centipede book by himself, but decided that he wanted this one read to him, and I was happy to oblige. I had reason to reconsider when, early on in the story, Harry and his cousin George found themselves captured and added to a little boy’s creepy-crawly collection, which featured some even less pleasant creatures – although the author is British, the setting is a tropical one, so they’re more venomous and impressive than anything we get here. The excellent writing helped me to get over my squeamishness, however.
One of the great things about this book, apart from being really well written, is that the story is told very convincingly from the centipedes’ point of view. They have their own vocabulary – such as “hard-air” (glass) and “flying swooper” (bird) – and the reader is given a little time to work out what the human (English) equivalent is before the author helps out, which was fun. Wonderful inventiveness, attention to detail and storytelling!
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
This was a slow read at first, as I adjusted to Dickens’ style of writing, but soon became a page-turner. I’m slightly ashamed to say that, not having been exposed much to Dickens at school (presumably because his books are far too long to make convenient subjects of study!), this is only the third work of his I’ve read. I enjoyed and admired David Copperfield and A Tale of Two Cities, but this is undoubtedly my favourite Dickens so far.
I think my pleasure was enhanced by the fact that I visited Rochester in January, the unnamed town closest to the blacksmith’s forge where Pip’s early childhood is spent. The weather was pretty good for that time of year, but I could easily picture the eerie marshes where Pip has his rendezvous with the prisoner Magwitch, and we stayed not far from Dickens’ inspiration for Miss Havisham’s house. However, I always enjoy a good coming-of-age story and Pip was a likeable if flawed hero. It was easy to empathise with him, even when his behaviour was unworthy, particularly as he is narrating this story from his older, wiser perspective.
Miss Havisham and Estella are characters so well known that you do not need to have read Great Expectations to have an idea of them, but it was wonderful to meet them properly at last, and to understand the reasons for their cruelty. My heart melted for loyal Joe, and I loved the character of Wemmick and the description of his home life (and its strict separation from his professional existence). The twists and turns of the plot felt a little soap opera-ish at times, but I was so caught up in the story that I didn’t care and, while suspecting that all was not as Pip believed and hoped, I’m not sure I fully anticipated the main plot twist.
I have no idea why I left it six years before trying another Dickens, but I’m determined not to do that again. I suppose thus far I hadn’t been able to shake the view that Dickens was “too difficult” to be enjoyable, but Great Expectations has persuaded me that I should be aiming for at least one of his works a year.
Upstairs at the Party by Linda Grant
This is the third book I’ve read by Linda Grant. I adored When I Lived in Modern Times and enjoyed but was less bowled over by The Clothes on Their Backs; I would place this book somewhere between the two.
The setting for much of the novel is the campus of a new university – a barely-disguised University of York – in the early 1970s. Adele, a resourceful outsider in the mould of the other Grant heroines I’ve encountered, has wangled her way onto an English undergraduate course and is discovering a world in which every act is political. Her detachment from and scepticism of the doctrines and philosophies of the day make her an easy narrator to identify with for those of us who remember little more general debate during our student days than whether the Spice Girls were a good or bad thing! Adele makes friends from a range of social classes and backgrounds and I really enjoyed those characterisations, particularly Gillian and Bobby.
Among those friends is the ethereal and fragile Evie, with whom she becomes fascinated to the point of obsession. The reader knows from the outset that she is somehow a tragic figure and the first half of the book – the book is split into three parts, but the first part is as long as the other two put together – builds up to the fateful event. The second part concerns life after university, although the friends have mostly drifted apart, and in the third a reunion of sorts takes place and Adele, whose obsession with Evie has never waned, is finally able to clear up the mystery surrounding her friend.
I love Grant’s engaging and apparently effortless style of writing and was engrossed in the story, enjoying how Adele’s perceptions of how things were during her student days are later revealed to be rather wonky. At times, though, the narrative did seem a bit unstructured and I felt frustrated that, much as I found it easy to identify with Adele as a character, I was unable to understand her obsession with Evie. I really did find Gillian a much more interesting character. Overall, a good read and a book I would recommend to others, but probably not one I’ll be reading again.
And now my March reads:
Le Fait du prince by Amélie Nothomb
Nothomb’s short novels never fail to draw me in and I love to escape for a brief time into her slightly absurd world. In this book, an unremarkable Frenchman leading an unremarkable life assumes the identity of a wealthy Swede whose existence differs from his own in every way. The plot doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny and is pretty self-indulgent, but I didn’t care, because I enjoyed it immensely!
Life Before Man by Margaret Atwood
I continued my Atwood re-read with this, her fourth published novel. I first read it 10 years ago and, in my mind, it ranks lowest for me in terms of enjoyment, along with Surfacing. However, as with Surfacing, I feel I got a lot more out of it a decade later, at a different point in my life.
Unlike my favourite Atwoods, which are first-person narratives, here the third person is used and the story told from three different perspectives: those of Nate and Elizabeth, living in a loveless marriage, and Lesje, indirectly a colleague of Elizabeth’s, for whom Nate falls. And unlike Marion in The Edible Woman or Joan in Lady Oracle, or even the unnamed protagonist in Surfacing, these characters remain aloof from the reader, even if we are given access to their innermost thoughts, and the book overall has a somewhat cold feel to it. That said, I was able to empathise with all of them, even Elizabeth, whose behaviour is often cruel. The humour is less obvious in this novel than in some of the other Atwoods I’ve read, but I found it, in a rather dark form, in Elizabeth’s awful Auntie Muriel, who continues to menace her niece long after she has ceased to live with her. The character of William is also enjoyably ridiculous.
This time around, I paid more attention to the incidental details. With an iPad to hand, I was able to familiarise myself quickly with some of the political events referred to and, now that I have a son, was far more interested in Lesje’s dinosaur obsession! I also enjoyed Lesje’s reflections on her eastern European grandmothers and how they shaped her identity.
Life Before Man is still not my favourite Atwood, but her writing is so accomplished that it was nonetheless a pleasure to read. It’s a book I can imagine re-reading and get even more out of in future years.
The Handsome Man’s De Luxe Café by Alexander McCall Smith
In spite of having a new baby, and being “co-director” of the No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, Mma Makutsi has plans to open a restaurant. Meanwhile Mma Ramotswe is investigating the case of a woman who has lost her memory. Since each book in these series follows a certain formula, I find them impossible to review, but I seem to enjoy each of these gentle reads as much as the last – a lot, that is!
Harry the Poisonous Centipede Goes to Sea by Lynne Reid Banks
This is the third and final Harry the Poisonous Centipede Book and the second I’ve read with my son. Harry and his cousin George make an error of judgment and are transported far away from their tropical home to somewhere that appears very much like London. On the way, they meet a non-meat-eating centipede called Josie and, together, the three of them must learn to adapt to their circumstances. Well written, touching and enjoyed by us both.
Amrita by Banana Yoshimoto
I’ve felt drawn recently to Japanese fiction, so decided to try this book I spotted in my local Oxfam Bookshop. The only other Japanese author I’ve read is Hiromi Kawakami, so I was interested to try someone new.
Amrita is narrated by Sakumi, a 20-something woman whose younger sister has died and who, herself, suffers a life-changing accident from which she recovers physically but which leaves her with memory loss. That might sound depressing, but the whole thing is rather life-affirming. As Sakumi tries to resume her life and reacquaint herself with friends and her history, she consistently ponders what she values in life and what makes her happy. At the same time, she is trying to help her much younger brother, who is troubled by the psychic abilities he possesses, abilities that Sakumi has also developed.
Sakumi is such a positive, resilient character that I enjoyed being around her and reading the descriptions of her everyday life, including a trip to Saipan, a place I knew nothing about. There is a plot in the sense that life gradually changes for Sakumi and her slightly unconventional family unit, but overall it is rather disjointed. I wasn’t so bothered until near the end, when two new characters are suddenly introduced, but without time for the reader to understand their significance.
Like Sakumi, I’m currently reassessing what I want my life to be like, so this book spoke to me to a certain extent, but I’m sure if I’d read it a few years ago I’d have found it too eccentric and been bewildered as to what it was about. I would like to try something else by Yoshimoto – Kitchen, perhaps – and that may well suit me better.
Fun catching up with your reading - I'm in the same bind with reviews, so congratulations on getting them done.
Great Expectations is a wonderful book, when I have read at many stages of my life, each time getting something else out of it. As a child, it was the terror of the marshes, the beautiful Estella and the ruin surrounding Miss Havisham. Joe became a favourite later, my opinion of Pip was reconsidered still later, and Wemmick became more than a parody the last time round. Reading Peter Carey's Jack Maggs sent me back to it again. Keep this book for rereads when you need them.
>38 Rebeki: I adored When I Lived in Modern Times and enjoyed but was less bowled over by The Clothes on Their Backs; That was my exact reaction to the only two books I have read by Grant. I will have to look for this one.
>43 Rebeki: I would like to try another book by Yoshimoto, and this one sounds promising. I've only read Hardboiled and Hard Luck but since Japan and the Koreas are this quarter's Reading Globally theme, it may be a good time for Amrita.
Love your adventures with Harry!
You’ve read some good books here. You’ve reminded me to get back to The #1 Ladies Detective series. I have a few to go before I catch up to you.
Forgot to mention that my experience with Great Expectations was what pushed me back to Dickens. I avoided reading him for years because I “had” to read GE in eighth or ninth grade. I think the “had to” turned me off. I had loved Oliver Twist before that. I read Great Expectations again as an adult and had a completely different experience. David Copperfield was wonderful. I’m looking forward to more.
Aaahh, I'm so pleased LibraryThing is back!
>44 SassyLassy: >45 NanaCC: At school, we did study an extract from Great Expectations and I'm fairly sure it was the beginning, where Pip first encounters Magwitch in the graveyard. In any case, I found it terrifying to the point of off-putting, and it's taken me 23 years to return to the book! I'm not sure my 15-year-old self would have got that much out of it anyway, so I'm not sorry to have waited, but I can see myself reading this book again.
>44 SassyLassy: Jack Maggs sounds interesting!
As my review suggests, I can't recommend Amrita unreservedly, but I am glad I read it. I've starred the Reading Globally Japan thread so that I can pick up some ideas!
>45 NanaCC: I'm glad to hear you enjoyed Oliver Twist. That's another story that terrified me as a child (based on watching Oliver!), but I think I'm just about grown up enough to face the book now ;)
Edited to remove a superfluous "now"!
>47 janeajones: Thank you. The writing of them can be quite a painful process, so that's nice to hear!
Great catching up on your reading (including the centipede!) I've been away from LT for a while as well, though I didn't stop reading.
>Yes, I was blown away by Great Expectations when I read it 6 or 7 years ago; like you, I had the idea that Dickens was 'difficult' and not enjoyable. So why haven't I read anything else since? Need to rectify that.
>38 Rebeki: I've read several books by Linda Grant and enjoyed them all, though of course some more than others. I wasn't aware of this one, though, so I'll look out for it.
>49 rachbxl: >50 rachbxl: That's a lucky find! Yes, I love Linda Grant's characterisation and writing, so I'm sure I'll end up reading (and enjoying) all her other books at some point.
On Dickens, it does take me a little while to adjust to his style, but I need to keep in mind that the initial effort is definitely worth it!
Billy Bunter and the Blue Mauritius by Frank Richards
Billy Bunter was a favourite of my Dad’s when he was growing up and I’ve developed a soft spot for these books about the lazy, devious, often foolish schoolboy and his fellow pupils at Greyfriars boarding school. The plot this time was particularly farcical, with criminals, police and schoolboys alike on the hunt for the valuable Blue Mauritius stamp, stolen from a local aristocrat and seemingly hidden somewhere within the school. Lots of fun and a great comfort read.
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
This is an extraordinary book, a clever and important idea well executed. Gyasi tells the story of two Ghanaian sisters and their descendants, beginning in late-18th century Cape Coast, a centre of the slave trade, and taking us to the present-day United States.
I recall reading some discussion about whether this was really a novel or a collection of short stories. As someone not keen on the short-story format, I was slightly put off by this discussion, but, for me, Homegoing was a definitely a novel. I started each chapter eager to know what had become of the character who was the focus of the previous one, and the ending goes some way to tying together the strands of family that have become separated over the generations. However, Gyasi has the good short-story writer’s gift of being able instantly to immerse the reader in a new setting and among different characters, and making us care about them. This seems all the more impressive given that some explanation of the historical context was required each time. This could have been cumbersome, but, for all the research that must have gone into writing this novel, it wears it lightly.
I’m ashamed, particularly given Britain’s involvement, that I know very little about slavery, but I learnt so much from this novel. It hadn’t occurred to me until I read Looking for Transwonderland earlier this year that some Africans would have been complicit in it, which makes the whole thing seem even more brutal and horrifying. I’d also imagined a rosy future for freed (or escaped) slaves, so it was eye-opening to read about forced returns to the south and convict labour.
I’m astonished that Gyasi has crammed so much in the way of storytelling and history into 300 pages, while keeping it immensely readable. Highly recommended.
Invitation to the Waltz by Rosamond Lehmann
This book has been sitting on my shelf for exactly 10 years, and it is only now, prompted by a Rosamond Lehmann read in the Virago Modern Classics group, that I’ve got round to reading it. I’d spotted The Weather in the Streets in a discount bookshop, but, having bought it, realised that it concerned characters first introduced in Invitation to the Waltz. I promptly ordered a copy of the latter and then... I’m not sure what happened. Anyway, it won’t be long before I pick up the sequel, because this was quite wonderful!
It is early winter 1920 and Olivia Curtis’s 17th birthday. Her life thus far appears to have been a happy but sheltered one, but in a week’s time Olivia will be attending her first ever dance and she senses that things may be about to change. The novel covers a limited time span: Olivia’s birthday takes up part one, while, in part two, we experience with her the highs and lows of the dance. However, we learn much in that time about Olivia’s character – there’s a wonderfully described encounter with a door-to-door lace-seller – and her family’s social standing and position within the village.
It was delicious to share in Olivia and her elder sister Kate’s anticipation of the dance, not least their wavering expectations of the young man their mother has invited to escort them, the depiction of whom, when they finally meet him, had me laughing out loud. I read the second part more or less in one go so that I could breathlessly live the whole dance through Olivia’s, and, to a lesser extent, Kate’s eyes, as Lehmann intends. The characters are wonderfully drawn and, in kind-hearted Olivia’s succession of awful partners, I recognised some “types” I’d come across in my younger days. Towards the end of the book there’s a foreshadowing of what may be to come in The Weather in the Streets. I suspect that will be a different kind of book, but, in this one, I loved the sense of youthful hopefulness and wonder, not to mention Lehmann’s writing that seems to fly off the page, carrying the reader with it.
>54 Rebeki: Just read this novel today, my first Lehmann. It was definitely a case of right book, right time and I thoroughly enjoyed a book I'm not sure I would have at another time. "Delicious" was a good word for it. Like you, I'm looking forward to The Weather in the Streets, but unlike you, I will have to track down a copy first.
Revolution Baby went straight to the wishlist. Amrita and Looking for Transwonderland appeal to me as well. With an eight-year-old boy in my life now, Harry the Poisonous Centipede sounds like something I should track down for a read-aloud. Both Dickens and Atwood are authors I know I need to read more of. Several Dickens and The Blind Assassin are all staring down at me as I type!
Thanks for all the great reviews.
Aaaggh. I can't believe I've not managed to post here properly for three months. There've been a couple of weeks when I couldn't concentrate on reading, but otherwise I've been reading away and am therefore hopelessly behind on reviews.
During this time I've read:
Midwinter Break by Bernard MacLaverty
How to Be a Pirate by Cressida Cowell (with my son)
Bodily Harm by Margaret Atwood
Precious and the Monkeys by Alexander McCall Smith (with my son)
The Weather in the Streets by Rosamond Lehmann
Precious and the Mystery of Meerkat Hill by Alexander McCall Smith (with my son)
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Claude in the Country by Alex T. Smith (with my son)
Gather Together in My Name by Maya Angelou
The Nakano Thrift Shop by Hiromi Kawakami
The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
The Muse by Jessie Burton
Fair Play by Tove Jansson
The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton
Sadly, I don't think I'm going to be able to give these books the reviews some of them in particular deserve - just a few lines in order to help me catch up.
First up, the books read with my son:
How to Be a Pirate by Cressida Cowell - I can no longer remember the ins and outs of this second book in the How to Train Your Dragon series, but I know poor Hiccup was dragged into another adventure against his better judgment by the rest of his Viking tribe. This one involves a treacherous "farmer" and a quest to find hidden treasure. It seems Hiccup and the rest of the Hairy Hooligans are doomed, but, of course, Hiccup manages to use his superior brains to save the day. Funny and clever - my son really likes these books.
Precious and the Monkeys by Alexander McCall Smith
Precious and the Mystery of Meerkat Hill by Alexander McCall Smith
I hadn't realised until I saw them on the library shelves that the prolific McCall Smith had written books for children about a young Precious Ramotswe. My son had seen me reading the No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, so I thought he'd like to try them. In keeping with the adult books, the stories are simple but well written and the Botswana setting was an interesting one for my son - a nice change from dragons and beasts! These editions are also beautifully illustrated.
Claude in the Country by Alex T. Smith
My son has been reading the Claude series by himself, but was feeling ill at the time I read this to him and was in need of something simple. In this book, city dwellers Claude the dog and his best friend Sir Bobblysock (yes, a sock) try out life in the countryside. Quirky, funny and with great pictures - ideal for children just starting to read by themselves, as there's not too much text to a page.
>57 Rebeki: I finished The Handmaid's Tale a few months ago as well so am curious to see your thoughts on it as well.
>57 Rebeki: I sympathize completely, being in the same situation. How does it happen?!
>61 SassyLassy: I know, and even when I am managing to write reviews I'm not able to keep up with others' threads and comments and I start to feel terribly rude. I hope we both manage to find some proper LT time soon!
>60 janemarieprice: As mentioned, my thoughts (when they materialise) might not do it justice. It was a second reading for me. I first read it at the tender age of 17 and it definitely made an impact, but 22 years on I'm sure I got a lot more out of it. The setting is too grim for it to be my favourite Atwood and yet I can completely see why it stands out among her works.
>56 labfs39: Thank you, Lisa! My next few reviews won't be up to scratch, but I'm hoping to have more time for proper reviews over the summer.
I'm glad you have a new opportunity for reading aloud. The Harry the Centipede books are very well written.
Because it needs to finally go back to the library, so that someone else can read it:
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
rachbxl on her thread described herself as a "reading sheep", but I've been unable to resist following her this year in reading Homegoing and The Underground Railroad, both excellent books in their own right and great companions to each other.
Since Homegoing spans continents and centuries to take a broader look at the history of slavery and its aftermath, I was pleased to have read it first, as it enhanced my reading of this more narrowly-focused story. In The Underground Railroad, we follow teenage slave Cora as she attempts to escape from the brutality of life on a Georgia cotton plantation. She is pursued every step of the way by a relentless slave-catcher, making for an exhilarating cat-and-mouse tale.
I enjoyed Whitehead's rendering of the escape network for slaves as a literal railroad. As Cora moves from state to state, the descent into its dark tunnels seems to reflect the fact that she and the other fugitives have no way of knowing whether the next station will deliver them to greater safety or peril.
This was quite a hard-going read at times, but ultimately redemptive. It also brought into focus how much danger those who helped the slaves were putting themselves in and the bravery required.
Midwinter Break by Bernard MacLaverty
I'd not heard of Bernard MacLaverty until I read an interview with Hilary Mantel in which she praised him - if I see a book or author praised by Mantel or Margaret Atwood, I'm pretty certain to want to investigate! It also helped that Midwinter Break was popping up on prize lists and Waterstones tables.
A long-married retired couple, Stella and Gerry, are off to Amsterdam for a short break. So far so normal, but for Stella this is more than a city break, and the couple's future looks to be in doubt. At first Stella's motivatations and Gerry's behaviour are somewhat difficult to comprehend, but as each remembers episodes from their earlier life in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, everything starts to make sense.
I know nothing of MacLaverty's other work, but, based solely on this short novel, I can see why Hilary Mantel's a fan. It's extremely well written and the mundane and the everyday are beautifully captured, seeming both universally recognisable and fresh. I loved the wit of Gerry and Stella's exchanges and the warmth that radiates from the novel, even though it depicts a couple apparently in crisis. A lovely short read.
Bodily Harm by Margaret Atwood
I last read this book in 2001/2002, I think, and I remember feeling bogged down with it, although I seem to recall reading it at a time when I was preoccupied with my studies and could have done with something lighter and fluffier.
Margaret Atwood is always readable, but this is anything but light; there is a sense of menace right from the start. Following a sinister and unexplained break-in at her apartment and after undergoing a mastectomy, journalist Rennie Wilford takes a travel assignment on a fictional Caribbean island. She may have managed to escape her old life, but this is no safe haven. From hostile hotel staff to locals with unclear motivations to seemingly friendly American Paul and fellow Canadian Lora, Rennie is suspicious of everyone, but still finds herself drawn inextricably into island life and politics, with all the dangers that brings.
I definitely enjoyed this book more second time around. From an older perspective, I found the breast cancer aspect of the plot more interesting and easier to handle and could understand better Rennie's attraction to Paul. I had completely forgotten the character of Lora, but she's presents an interesting parallel to Rennie and forces the latter to rethink her attitudes.
It's a while since I finished this book, so I did some reading around and it seems an ending I took to be hopeful is actually ambiguous. I'm choosing to stick with the hopeful version, but, if nothing else, Rennie's experiences fundamentally change her outlook on life - for the better - so there is some redemption after all the bleakness.
Thank you for taking the time to write about the books you are reading. Even if you don't consider them "proper" reviews, I enjoy your perspective and the new titles you bring to my attention.
Continuing the very gradual catch-up:
The Weather in the Streets by Rosamond Lehman
It’s 10 years on from Invitation to the Waltz and, in contrast to her sister’s settled family life, Olivia has a failed marriage behind her, lodges in London with her cousin Etty and survives on a precarious income. A chance encounter with Rollo Spencer, at whose house she attended that memorable first dance, sets the course of the novel with a certain inevitability.
Impeccably written, with the more jaded Olivia still a sympathetic heroine, this book is a more substantial read than its predecessor. I was interested to see how my feelings about Rollo changed throughout the book and was slightly agonised by the ambiguous ending. Lehman has chosen to focus more or less solely on Olivia and Rollo’s relationship, ignoring the rich life Olivia has with her friends, but perhaps that mirrors Olivia’s state of mind. However, intriguingly little is written about her beloved friend Simon, a character who, even in his absence, looms large in Olivia’s life.
Gather Together in My Name by Maya Angelou
This picks up more or less where I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings leaves off and Angelou now has a baby to support. Her quest to maximise her income takes her in some interesting and unexpected directions.
Never sure what to expect next, I zipped through this volume. Angelou in her late teens is an intriguing combination of streetwise toughness and painful naivety. I love her openness about the errors of judgement she has made and the fact that she doesn't attempt to explain them away. Another reason why this book and the previous volume are so engaging is that they do not read as if Angelou is looking back: she places you firmly in the time she is describing, so that these episodes of her life take on the momentum and excitement of a novel. I hope this approach continues in the later volumes.
The Nakano Thrift Shop by Hiromi Kawakami
I first read this book a couple of years ago and have come to view it as something of a comfort read. The narrator, a young woman named Hitomi, works in a thrift - not antique - shop, owned by the eccentric Mr Nakano and also staffed by his sister, Masayo, and a young man called Takeo.
The writing is understated and the plot somewhat meandering, but the reader can detect a growing connection between Hitomi and Takeo, albeit one not helped by their emotional clumsiness.
With its quirkiness and warmth, The Nakano Thrift Shop has the feel of a sitcom or an indie film and I can imagine returning to it in future when I'm in need of an escapist read.
>70 Rebeki: I agree Maya Angelou does place you firmly in the time she is describing.
The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
The Margaret Atwood re-read I started last year - and from which I'm currently having a summer hiatus - was prompted by the desire to re-read this book and finally watch the TV series. Well, I eventually made it, although I've still only watched three episodes of the first series. The summer holidays are seriously interfering with my ability to catch a quiet moment to watch TV!
The Handmaid's Tale was the first Atwood I read, at the age of 17. I was taking English Language A Level, but I remember one of my English teachers encouraging us to borrow both The Handmaid's Tale and Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit over the summer, books that must have been on the syllabus for the Literature students. I shall forever be grateful to that teacher, because Oranges is now one of my favourite books and Atwood quickly became my favourite author.
I finished this book back in early June, so anything I write now can't really do it justice. Other than the bare bones of the plot, all I recalled from the first read was that it was "depressing", which is why I hadn't re-read it before. Of course, the subject matter is depressing, but Offred's account is matter of fact and highly readable. Her world has shrunk drastically, so that the smallest of incidents takes on increased significance and I enjoyed the detailed descriptions of this - to her - mundane life. Atwood's world-building is painstaking and very convincing and it was not long before re-reading this novel that I learned that all the practices employed in the Republic of Gilead had already been a feature of real-life totalitarian regimes. That is chilling, as, right now, is the US setting.
Reading The Handmaid's Tale this time, I could see that it lends itself perfectly to adaptation for TV and I could also recognise why it stands out among Atwood's novels and will probably remain her most significant work.
The Muse by Jessie Burton
I ended up reading both Jessie Burton's novels more or less concurrently back in June: The Miniaturist because I'd recorded the TV adaptation at Christmas and thought maybe I should read the book first (obviously that adaptation, like The Handmaid's Tale, remains unwatched) and this, her second novel, for my reading group's June meeting.
In The Muse the story alternates between London in 1967, where Odelle, a young Trinidadian, has landed a job at an art gallery run by the intriguing Marjorie Quick, and Spain in 1936, where the part-Jewish Schloss family hopes to have found a safe haven after leaving Vienna. Connecting both plot strands is a painting, but it is not until the end of the novel that the reader learns exactly how. Most of the reading group thought they had it sussed earlier, but we turned out to be wrong, so that was well done by Burton.
This was an enjoyable page-turner and I think I may even have a shed a tear towards the end, but overall it's not a book that will stay with me. Sometimes, when reading contemporary novels set in other times and places, I'm very conscious that I'm reading the product of an author's research and imagination as opposed to just losing myself in the story, and that was the case here, although I can't really fault Burton's writing.
The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton
I felt that Burton was far more successful at evoking a sense of time and place in this, her debut novel, that setting being Amsterdam in the 1680s. Young Nella Oortman arrives in Amsterdam as the new wife of an older man she barely knows and doesn't find the welcome she'd hoped for. Gradually Nella uncovers the secret each member of the household is harbouring, but the miniaturist whose services she has employed to furnish a giant doll's house, a replica of her new home and gift from her otherwise distracted husband, seems to be disturbingly well informed.
Again, this was an enjoyable but slightly forgettable read. The plot was gripping, but felt rather melodramatic at times. For me, the best part was Burton's capturing of the sights and smells of 17th-century Amsterdam and the stifling piety of the time.
>73 Rebeki: yes, the summer holidays are seriously interfering with my ability to catch a quiet moment to do just about ANYTHING! There’s been very little reading (at least, not for me, though this morning we had 11 picture books before we even got up), and I don’t remember what TV is... She is unexpectedly asleep on the sofa, which is how I come to be on LT!
I enjoyed catching up with your thread, BTW. I must try some Rosamond Lehman.
>74 Rebeki: I am at least getting plenty of reading done, although while my son is hogging the TV, so that's probably not the best parenting! It's lovely that your daughter is so enthusiastic about being read to, although 11 picture books in one go does sound a little tiring!
Yes, I'm glad finally to have been introduced to Rosamond Lehman and will look out for more of her books.
Fair Play by Tove Jansson
I read this book back in late June, when I was feeling a bit overwhelmed by things and it was the perfect antidote. Like The Summer Book, it's episodic and, as with that more famous work, nothing much seems to happen, yet you end the book feeling rather wiser about life.
Mari is a writer and illustrator and Jonna an artist and photographer. They are life partners, but don't quite live together, sharing a building but not an apartment. They are careful about discussing each other's work and understand each other's habits and vulnerabilities perfectly. They know what should be said explicitly and what is best left unsaid.
A refreshing book about a partnership of equals and the need for emotional and creative space.
A Glass of Blessings by Barbara Pym
I always like to read something fun round about my birthday and this year it was the turn of A Glass of Blessings - Barbara Pym is one of my favourite authors and I am slowly making my way through her books in the order in which they were written. Slowly, because I wish to savour the pleasure. When I complete them all, I've no doubt I'll start again from the beginning!
Wilmet Forsyth is a little different from some of the Pym heroines I've encountered in being glamorous and, initially, rather superficial, although that changes in the course of the novel. Bored with her life, she is drawn, perhaps surprisingly, - in her case, though not for a Pym novel - to her local church, but also to the mysterious and seemingly troubled brother of a friend.
With plenty of comic secondary characters, amusingly petty church politics, obligatory references to characters in other Pym novels and a few misunderstandings along the way, this was a delightful read.
>77 Rebeki:, >78 Rebeki: I am much in need of light reading at the moment, and both Jansson and Pym sound perfect. I read and loved The Summer Book, would you recommend Fair Play as a good second novel, or is there another you prefer? I have Excellent Women by Pym on my shelves, and my LT record says it was recommended by you! So I'll pull it out and put it on the bedside table. I just finished rereading both A Guide to the Birds of East Africa and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, two of my favorite feel-good books.
>80 Rebeki: Hi Lisa, sorry for the slow reply. As it happens, Fair Play is only the second of Jansson's adult novels I've read - after The Summer Book - so I couldn't recommend another even if I wanted to! It worked for me though. Overall, I still think I like her Moomin novels best, but I do find her adult fiction refreshing.
I love Barbara Pym and Excellent Women is her best-loved work, I think, but I find her writing, characters and settings so perfect for me that I wonder what others will make of her. I hope you enjoy it though!
I read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society a few years back, but A Guide to the Birds of East Africa sounds interesting.
All That I Am by Anna Funder
I read and was captivated by Anna Funder's non-fiction work Stasiland when it came out, so I was keen to try her first novel, also set in Germany. Obviously, for me, "keen" means acquiring a book and then letting it sit on my shelves for nearly five years, but I'm glad finally to have read it.
Following the fate of a group of left-wing friends in Berlin and elsewhere as Hitler seizes power, this novel is narrated alternately by Ruth Becker, an elderly woman now living in Australia and looking back on this tumultuous period of her life, and the (real-life) playwright Ernst Toller. While readers know that Ruth will survive the Nazi years, things look more ominous for some of the other characters and it is clear, as they escape Germany for London and Paris, that there is a traitor among them.
While my suspicions about who that traitor was proved correct, the build-up to the revelation had the intensity of a spy thriller. I mentioned in my comments above on Jessie Burton's novel The Muse, that I can have reservations about contemporary novels dealing with periods of history in other countries. Sometimes they don't ring true or they wear the author's research too heavily; in this case, everything was perfect. It helps that Funder's writing is clean and elegant with not a word out of place, but there was a strong sense of authenticity about the characters (some of which were based on real people) and the situations they found themselves in. Recommended.
The Northern Clemency by Philip Hensher
For the second year running, we managed to have a two-week summer holiday. Last year that gave me the chance to get my teeth into The Luminaries. This year, I decided to try the 738-page but decidedly readable-looking The Northern Clemency, which had been sitting on my shelves for nine years.
Beginning in Sheffield in the mid-70s, this is a family saga spanning 30 years. As the book opens, the Glovers are hosting a party, though not all family members are enthusiastic about it, while the Sellers family from London are about to settle on the avenue. This is middle-class suburbia, a place of well-tended gardens and keeping up appearances, but the scene outside the Glovers’ house on the day of the Sellers’ arrival is an extraordinary one.
The next 700-plus pages deal chiefly with the Glover and Sellers parents and children, but there are a host of other characters, some making fleeting appearances and some recurring, that add further poignancy and humour. In the background, and in the foreground in Tim Glover’s case, is the industrial unrest of the 1970s and 80s, which I found interesting to read about, having lived through the later stages of it but being too young to understand what was going on.
This novel is part autobiographical in that Philip Hensher moved to Sheffield from London at a similar age to Francis Sellers. If Francis’s experiences reflect Hensher’s, this relocation will not have been without its difficulties, but the city of Sheffield is lovingly described. I spent some of the happiest years of my life studying at the university there and, like the characters, lived in the west of the city, so I especially enjoyed the references to shops and areas and the reminiscing they prompted.
This novel is warm, funny, sad and life-affirming, with characters that are well drawn. With its focus on ordinary life and its mainly suburban setting, it might sound less than compelling, but Hensher takes us in some unexpected directions and, from the very first pages, I had trouble putting it down. A really excellent read.
>83 SassyLassy: Very true, and when I think about those books, I find myself transported back to the particular holiday cottage I was staying in and remembering the pleasure of guilt-free, uninterrupted reading time!
The Travelling Cat Chronicles by Hiro Arikawa
I tend to avoid fiction about animals, assuming it will be schmaltzy or sad. However, I have a newish interest in Japanese fiction and love cats, so I was drawn to this quirkily-titled novel. Yes, some tears may have been shed as I approached the end of the book, but it was ultimately an uplifting read, and Nana the cat’s superior tone brought humour to the narrative rather than sentimentality.
For reasons that gradually become apparent, Satoru – in conventional terms, Nana’s owner, though it’s doubtful Nana thinks of him that way – needs to find someone else to take care of his beloved cat. Thus begins a road trip that takes the two of them all over Japan visiting old friends of Satoru, stirring up memories of shared experiences long ago. Rather unrealistically, Nana takes great delight in this journey – our cats certainly hate being in a moving vehicle – but this allows the reader to view the changing landscapes and seasons through his eyes.
However, this novel is as much about Satoru as it is about Nana; about kindness, consideration and living life well. I had my own reasons for finding the story particularly heartrending, but this is a lovely book that I’m very glad to have read.
>85 Rebeki: I recently read a semi-autobiographical novel about a young girl growing up in the Highlands (My Friends the Miss Boyds). When I read what you wrote about cats, I thought you might enjoy her perspective on animals. In the following quote, Janet and the farmhand, Tom, have just caught a recalcitrant horse:
'He'll do now,' said Tom, sitting down on the chest at the end of the stalls. 'Let them eat in peace and then we'll put the harness on them. A person is always the better of a little peace before the harness.'
This, dear reader, is how I was brought up, surrounded by 'persons', some two-legged, some four-legged, some having skin, some hide, some wool, some feathers, but all 'persons', and comments of the higher philosophical nature were part of the lives of these persons and me.
>86 labfs39: Ha, our cats are definitely four-legged persons and my husband in particular likes to attribute all kinds of emotions to them that they may or may not feel!
Moominpappa at Sea by Tove Jansson
This is the penultimate of Jansson's Moomin novels and apparently the last to feature the Moomins. It also takes us away from Moominvalley.
Feeling discontented and purposeless, Moominpappa exhorts the family to move to a small island far from anywhere, inhabited only by a strangely reticent fisherman. As the Moomins struggle to adapt to their new surroundings and make a home in the neglected lighthouse, the Groke is watching them...
Jansson's Moomin books reflect events happening in her own life and this was a far more melancholy read than some of her earlier books. I admit I found myself missing Sniff, Snufkin and the cosy house in Moominvalley, but my son seemed to enjoy the book still.
How to Speak Dragonese by Cressida Cowell
Whenever Gobber the Belch, the Pirate Training instructor on the Isle of Berk, sets the young Vikings of the Hooligan tribe a task, you know it's going to lead to trouble for Hiccup Horrendous Haddock the Third and his friend Fishlegs. This time, the boys encounter a ship full of Romans who are not keen on dragons, unless they can be eaten or made to perform, and must rescue Toothless - and save themselves.
Great fun, as I've come to expect, and ideal for reading aloud to my son. I also enjoyed the introduction of a new, female character.
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