rachbxl reads in 2019
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Happy New Year to all my LT friends!
Last year was a good reading year, compared to previous years - 40 books read (up on the last couple of years, though still down on pre-parenthood days!), of which quite a few were particularly enjoyable. Looking back at my 2018 list just now, I was struck by just how many books stand out. Particular favourites, in no particular order, were:
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Petit Pays by Gael Faye
Transcription by Kate Atkinson
I also enjoyed at least 2 books by each of the following new-to-me authors, and am looking forward to reading more:
Karl Ove Knausgard
I'm not a planner when it comes to reading; I'll just go with the flow and see where my 2019 reading takes me. I'll be reading from my TBR shelves and from a couple of libraries, and possibly making more use of my Kindle.
Books read in 2019
1. Exposure by Helen Dunmore (UK)
2. Tropique de la violence by Natacha Appanah (Mauritius, in French)
3. The Librarian by Sally Vickers (UK)
4. The Sixteen Trees of the Somme by Lars Mytting (Norway, translation)
5. I'll be Right There by Kyung-sook Shin (South Korea, translation)
6. No soy un monstruo by Carme Chaparro (Spain, in Spanish)
7. Love of Fat Men by Helen Dunmore (UK)
8. Why Did You Lie? by Yrsa Sigurdadottir (Iceland, translation)
9. A Rule against Murder by Louise Penny (Canada)
10. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle (USA)
11. LaRose by Louise Erdrich (USA)
12. The Winter Ghosts by Kate Mosse (UK)
13. Astonishing Splashes of Colour by Clare Morrall (UK)
14. The Distant Echo by Val McDermid (UK)
15. The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker (UK)
16. Truly, Madly, Guilty by Liane Moriarty (Australia)
17. Tangerine by Christine Mangan (USA)
18. The Man Who Disappeared by Clare Morrall (UK)
Glad you are here again! As far as I can tell there are only the two Heivoll novels that have been translated. Hmm. is that an Appanah not available in English yet? I've really loved the two of hers I've read.
Exposure by Helen Dunmore
I don't know why Helen Dunmore isn't a bigger name; I have thoroughly rated everything of hers that I've read. The last thing of hers I read was The Greatcoat, which I read right at the end of 2017, just in time for it to make it on to my 'best of 2017' list. Exposure is set in 1960 in England, so a little later than The Greatcoat, but the same general time and place, a time and place that Dunmore portrays brilliantly. What is added to the mix in Exposure, of course, is cold war paranoia, so when Simon Callington, a quite unremarkable low-ranking, unambitious civil servant who is a devoted husband and father (albeit one with a skeleton in his closet), is wrongly arrested as a spy, the outlook for him is bleak, and he and his family are plunged into a nightmare. To make matters worse, his wife, Lily, is German by birth; she fled Germany with her mother before the war, as a young child, and until now has always felt more British than German, but suddenly she feels foreign, someone people are suspicious of, someone who doesn't quite fit in as she struggles to hold her family together.
On the surface this is a quiet book, written in Dunmore's beautiful restrained style, but underneath there is so much going on. It got right under my skin.
I loved Exposure also. I have her last book yet to read and am sad that has left us. I though back a bit to Exposure when reading the latest Ondaatje.
>3 avaland: I just assumed it was the one you read last year, but maybe not. What was that one called?
Waving hello, enjoyed your review. Happy you’re able to sneak in some good reading time.
>4 rachbxl: I’ve heard such good things about that one from nearly all my like minded reading friends.
>9 avaland: looks like good news for us both, then! For you, the one I read seems to have been published in English translation in autumn last year, Tropic of Violence. And the good news for me is that I haven’t read Waiting for Tomorrow. I’ve read several of her other books, and until now I’ve been disappointed that they haven’t lived up to The Last Brother, but Tropic of Violence does, and if you rate Waiting for Tomorrow, that bodes well.
>7 dchaikin: Hello Dan, thanks for popping in.
>8 lisapeet: I’m not surprised! I keep thinking about it and marvelling at how cleverly Dunmore put it all together whilst appearing to do very little. And then there’s the way she writes, which really works for me, and the extremely lifelike characters...
>4 rachbxl: I haven’t read anything by Dunmore, but I do have a couple of her books on my wishlist based upon reviews here on LT. I’ll have to make more of an effort to get to her.
Tropique de la violence by Natacha Appanah
(Available in English translation as Tropic of Violence)
Reading this book made me very happy. Ten years ago on Christmas Eve I was stuck at Austerlitz station in Paris, waiting for my train to Limoges to spend Christmas with my dad. All the trains were severely delayed. The station was heaving with people, and it was hard to find a place to stand, let alone sit. Very fed up, I elbowed my way into the small newsagent's shop and listlessly cast my eye over the limited range of books on offer on the rack, not expecting anything to interest me; in any case, in the mood I was in, it was going to be almost impossible for anything to pique my interest. But one little book did, a little book I'd never heard of, by a French/Mauritian author I'd never heard of - Le Dernier frère (The Last Brother) by Natacha Appanah. I started it immediately - I remember standing in the crush reading the first pages, and the station, the crowds, the delay, the cold all fell away as I was transported into another world. I know this is an overused phrase, but I couldn't put it down. Since then, I've read several of Appanah's other books (Les Noces d'Anna, Les Rochers de Poudre d'or, Blue Bay Palace), hoping to find the same magic, but I've been disappointed (they're nice books, but not up there with The Last Brother). Tropique de la violence, though, is Natacha Appanah back on Le Dernier frère form, and that makes me very happy indeed.
Tropique de la violence is set on Mayotte, a little-known island in the Indian Ocean which is a French overseas 'départment', where Appanah lived for a couple of years; she says that her interest in the street children of Mayotte inspired this book. Fifteen-year old Moise finds himself alone after the death of his adopted mother, Marie, and gets caught up in a gang that rules one particular neighbourhood. Angry with Marie for abandoning him by dying, angry with her for 'stealing' his identity and trying to force him into a life that wasn't his (his birth mother was an illegal immigrant from the Comoros Islands, who abandoned him at the hospital where Marie worked as a nurse, immediately after she had arrived by boat on one of Mayotte's beachers), heartbroken and lost, Moise is easy prey for the unscrupulous young gang leader, who decides that Moise will become one of his acolytes. From his ordered life with Marie, Moise is plunged into a dark world of drugs and lawlessness from which there is no easy escape (the gang leader does not take kindly to 'his' people leaving, as Moise will discover). The manner in which the story unfolds reminded me of Gael Faye's Petit Pays; a beautiful environment and a breathtakingly beautiful story, which I willed to end well, whilst knowing it wouldn't (or maybe it did, because the ending, whilst sad, is also uplifting). The story is narrated from various different viewpoints - Marie, from beyond the grave, Moise, the gang leader, the French NGO volunteer who tries to help the street children and give them an alternative to the gangs, a local policeman, and their narratives weave together to create a spellbinding whole.
Another reason reading this made me happy was the way I read it - on New Year's Day morning, my little daughter (5 next month) came into my bed for a cuddle, and then fell asleep again in my arms. Happily, I was sitting up against comfy pillows, the bedside light was on, and this book was to hand on the bedside table, as I'd put it there the previous day as one I wanted to read soon. She slept for such a long time that I read over half the book, and it was a magical experience.
>13 rachbxl: Interesting to read a review of a book based in Mayotte. Thank you for the introduction to a new to me french author and a nice reading experience for you.
>4 rachbxl: My favorite Dunmore books so far are The Siege and the lesser sequel The Betrayal. I was not as enamoured with The Greatcoat as many, probably because of the supernatural element. Looking at her page just now, I realized how prolific of an author she is. I should try some more, and Exposure sounds like a good place to begin. Your review is tantalizing.
>13 rachbxl: I've read The Last Brother, but will look for others by her, thanks to the recommendations of you and Lois.
The Librarian by Sally Vickers
The display shelves (new acquisitions, plus random others) at the two libraries I use through work are a good source of lucky discoveries, introducing me to great books I wouldn’t otherwise have read, or wouldn’t have read right now. This book-choosing method can’t work every time, though, and this is one of the times it failed.
I thought this had all the elements for a feel-good read, and I think that’s what it was supposed to be, but it didn’t work for me. A young librarian arriving in a small town in England in the 1960s to take charge of the children’s library encounters resistance, not least from her boss, to her plans to make the library somewhere children want to come. She soldiers on, navigating the hidden currents of small-town relationships as best she can, making friends and enemies, and reading lots of books and recommending still more along the way. Oh, and she falls in love with the handsome new doctor, who is unfortunately married. It was never going to be great literature, but it could have been a nice little story. Instead, it plodded along with too much telling and now enough showing. The only time it did take off a little was in what is called part 2 but which is actually more of an epilogue, as it’s just the last 30 pages or so. This part is set now, and it was much more natural than the rest of the book, set in the 1960s.
The Sixteen Trees of the Somme by Lars Mytting
Translated from the Norwegian by Paul Russell Garrett
And this is one where the library display shelves threw up a gem. I don’t think I’d even heard of this wonderful book, or the author (this is his first work of fiction, but he’s the author of an unlikely bestseller, the non-fiction Norwegian Wood: Chopping, Stacking and Drying Wood the Scandinavian Way). This book, too, is all about wood (the trees of the title are walnut trees, and walnut, it turns out, is highly prized by cabinet makers), but it’s also a gripping mystery, and a great family saga, covering the period from World War I until the early 20th century, and taking us from rural Norway to Shetland to the Somme. Put like that, it sounds rather odd, but it works spectacularly well. It’s incredibly well put together; without fail, whenever I thought I had spotted a flaw in the plot, it was as if Mytting could read my mind, as within a few pages he would seamlessly slip in a small detail which closed the loophole.
The narrator’s world in rural Norway reminded me of the rural Norway portrayed by Gaute Heivoll. In the Shetland parts, the landscape and the weather almost become characters in their own right. And as for the real characters, they walk off the page, even the ones we never meet but only know through the narrator, like the parents he lost as a boy of 3. The translation reads so easily that most of the time I forgot it was a translation at all.
I wanted to know how it ended, because I wanted to know how the mystery was resolved, but I didn’t want the book to end. A fabulous book.
>20 rachbxl: Oh, you got me with that one, but my library doesn't have it and it's very expensive on amazon. I'll keep looking, maybe ebay or abebooks . . .
>20 rachbxl: terrific review. And one out of two maybe isn’t bad. Noting Mytting.
Oh, you got me with a number of book bullets there. Thanks for the intro to new authors for me.
>19 rachbxl: I am a great fan of library sale shelves. And yesterday I was dropping things off at Goodwill, and wandered in to look at their books. I found one that looks interesting: The Ghost Mountain Boys: Their Epic March and the Terrifying Battle for New Guinea--The Forgotten War of the South Pacific by James Campbell. I love the hit or miss excitement from never knowing if you are going to find a gem. Once I found 12 Franklin Library books for $1 each. That was fun.
>20 rachbxl: The Sixteen Trees of the Somme sounds very interesting. Book bullet!
>21 japaul22: That's a shame. Hope you manage to track down a copy without too much trouble.
>22 dchaikin: Thanks! I agree, one out of two isn't that bad, after all. And to be fair, I'm currently enjoying 2 more from the same library shelves.
>23 AlisonY: I thought of you, because I read The Sixteen Trees of the Somme just after we told each other on your thread how much we both enjoy a good family saga.
>24 labfs39: These aren't the library sale shelves, but the ones where they display new acquisitions, amongst others (I'm never sure how they decide what to put there, which adds to the element of surprise). One of the libraries does have a 'help-yourself-for-free' shelf, but the offerings don't tend to be that interesting, sadly. They don't do sale shelves; I think they just keep things for ever (they aren't standard libraries, as not open to the public for one thing, and one of the two is volunteer-run). But yes, the joy of poking around in a second-hand bookshop or charity shop, not knowing whether this particular visit you'll strike gold...
ETA, it's totally your fault that I have ordered from the Book Depository...not one...but TWO copies of the Mything (one for a friend). Had you not invoked Helvoll I might have escaped somehow.
I'll be Right There by Kyung-sook Shin
translated from the Korean by Sora Kim-Russell
Another gem from the library display. I only picked it up because it was South Korean (back in the day when I had more reading time, and more LT time, I was a keen member of the Reading Globally group, very enthusiastic about my reading around the world project; the project is on ice, but old habits die hard, and I have my round-the-world reading to thank for the fact that I am often drawn to books in translation, and to books from 'exotic' (to me) places.
I nearly gave up on this one, because it didn't seem to be going anywhere, but then I realised that to expect it to go anywhere fast was to misunderstand it. In fact it does go, but it does so so slowly and gently that the reader doesn't notice it happening. The novel opens with the narrator, a very articulate, well-read but lonely woman in her late 20s, getting a phone call from her ex-boyfriend from their student days, after almost a decade of silence, to tell her that their beloved professor is dying. She knows she should rush to visit the professor, but something holds her back, and instead she reflects upon her life. The pages of the journals of her ex-boyfriend are interspersed with her narration. Kyung-sook Shin somehow builds up images and characters in very fine layers, which she adds to again and again; it's imperceptible, and very effective. There is some narrative drive, but this novel is more about the characters and what makes them tick, and by extension about human beings and what makes us tick...and in particular, about what prevents two people getting close to each other. There's much here that is bleak and hopeless, but there's also a lot of gentle beauty.
I am happy to have discovered this writer, and I'll be on the lookout for Please Look After Mom, her 2012 Man Asian Literary Prize winner.
No soy un monstruo by Carme Chaparro
Chaparro is a well-known TV journalist in Spain, and this is her first novel. She draws on what she knows, as one of the main characters, Ines, is a TV journalist; I really enjoyed the parts about how such journalists cover sensational stories (of which there are several here), and these scenes rang true. I didn't like the rest of it as much, though. The novel opens with the kidnapping of a child, which gets the police procedual treatment about half the time, because the other main character, Ana, is a chief inspector. It could have been interesting to see the police handling of the case clashing with the journalistic approach, but for me it didn't quite work; it was as if the novel couldn't decide whether it's a police procedural or a journalist's diary. I was also irritated by the breathless wordiness, which seemed to get worse as I got further into the book (or maybe it was just that my tolerance decreased). Lots of short sentences. Very short sentences. Because short sentences are good. Ana had always thought that short sentences were good. Very good. And now Ines was convinved too. Convinced that short sentences were good. Ana and Ines, convinced.
However, it seems I'm in the minority, as this novel won Spain's Premio Primavera in 2016.
>31 rhian_of_oz: Well, I didn’t want to labour the point, but that’s exactly what I was trying to say ;-)
Enjoyed these posts, Rachel. TV journalism maybe isn’t great prep for crime novel writing, or maybe Chaparro will hit her stride later.
Just now finding your thread and I've been reminded why I enjoy following your reading. I've been reminded to try Dunmore and been introduced to two authors to look for (Appanah, Mytting).
>33 dchaikin: Thanks, Dan. You know, I think I saw her second novel in the library, and I think I would actually give her another go. I'm curious to see whether she will hit her stride or not.
>34 RidgewayGirl: Thanks for the compliment! It's mutual, of course… I think you would like Dunmore, and I can't believe you've been in Club Read all this time and not been hit by an Appanah bullet before.
More Dunmore, one I picked up at a book sale because I'd enjoyed other things of hers so much.
Love of Fat Men by Helen Dunmore
This is a fabulous collection of short stories, up there with Alice Munro and the like, in my opinion. I've become aware over the years of how really good short story writers can do things others can't, so where less exceptional (but still good) writers will write stories with a clear beginning, middle and end, these outstanding writers aren't limited to that. Most of these stories are like opening a window on the characters for a period of time, be it hours, days or weeks; during that time we see them startlingly clearly, but then the window closes, and we are left wondering, which isn't the same thing as being left unsatisfied. Many of the stories here are set in Finland, and they all feature the same character, a student called Ulli, and various friends and boyfriends of hers; they also feature the biting chill of the Finnish winter in a big way. I looked into the Finnish connection because I was curious about it, and it turns out that Dunmore spent 2 years in Finland in her early 20s. I spent a few years in Spain at the same age, and I always had vague ideas that such a formative experience must have provided me with much to write about, if only I could write. Well, these stories show what happens when you have an experience like that and you CAN write, and they have just hardened my resolve to read as much Dunmore as I can find.
"Most of these stories are like opening a window on the characters for a period of time, be it hours, days or weeks; during that time we see them startlingly clearly, but then the window closes, and we are left wondering, which isn't the same thing as being left unsatisfied."
That's an aspect I really like about short stories - when their written that way. If several like that are combined in sequence, it can be a great kaleidoscope of stuff the think about.
>13 rachbxl: I'm late at commenting on this review, but I liked it so much that I feel the urge to write a few lines.
I did not know this author, but she seems really interesting. And I like the way you mix your feedback on the book and your personal reading experience. Great review!
Which book would you recommand to start with to discover Natacha Appanah, Le Dernier frère or Tropique de la violence?
>36 rachbxl: Lovely review of a book I enjoyed so long ago. Glad you are still enjoying Dunmore.
>29 rachbxl: I happen to have read a book from Korea recently (Un jour de chance by Jin-geon Hyun, a collection of short stories set in Korea in the 20's and 30's, not yet reviewed on my thread), and I feel that a lot of what you are saying about the tone of this book resonnates with my own reading experience.
Not sure the book you reviewed appeal to me, but Korean literature seems to be full of interesting things to be discovered).
>38 raton-liseur: Thanks for your message, raton-liseur. Sorry I haven't replied before; we were on holiday last week and I was keeping off the internet. Objectively, I think you could start with either book, but my heart tells me you should start with Le Dernier frère. I hope you enjoy it! (I guess you'll be reading it in French ;-) )
>39 avaland: Thanks, Lois. The two libraries I use have several more of her works between them, so I am not about to run out. I'm trying to pace myself rather than reading them all at once, though.
>40 raton-liseur: I agree about Korean literature. I haven't read much, but what I have read has been a real discovery (as opposed to just nice to read, if you see what I mean). I'm off to find your thread now!
Why Did You Lie? by Yrsa Sigurdardottir
Translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb
I found myself in a reading slump a few weeks back; I caught the flu, not badly (at least, not compared to my poor husband), but badly enough not to be able to concentrate on anything, and even after I was better it left me tired for ages. I tried various books that I really want to read, and put them all to one side, but when I saw this in the library I thought it might hit the spot, and it did. It's a thriller that is so smoothly, so cleverly put together that I didn't see the dénouement coming at all. The various threads appear at first to have nothing to do with each other. There's the photographer who has been winched down from a helicopter on to a windswept rock in the middle of the sea, having talked a man he met in a bar into letting him accompany him on his trip to service the lighthouse - what photographer would pass up on that kind of opportunity? Then there's the young female police officer, relegated to clerical work in the basement archives and snubbed by all her colleagues after making a complaint about one of them; her husband is on life support after a suicide attempt and she spends her nights on a chair at his bedside. And the married couple with their teenage son, just back from a holiday in the USA, only to find that the Americans they did a house-swap with appear to have done some rather odd things during their stay in Iceland. What could these people possibly have in common? Slowly, patiently, Sigurdardottir weaves the threads together. She does so very cleverly, but not in a clever-clever way, rather with immense skill. As well as being a great storyteller, she is also excellent at drawing her characters, who are vivid and real, if not always likeable (real people, in other words). And to top it all off, what an atmospheric portrayal of Iceland, its landscape, its weather.
Just bought two books after having followed your thread in the past few days. Being on this group is such a permanent temptation...
I bought Le Dernier frère by Appanah (yes, in French, of course) following your advice. And I let myself being tempted by Prends soin de maman by Shin Kyung-sook. I discovered this author here, and the subject is more in line with my book tastes than the one that you read, I'll be right there. Intrigued by South Korean litterature at the moment, that's my excuse to buy this...
>44 AlisonY: Alison, I think you would enjoy it.
A Rule against Murder by Louise Penny
I read the first three of Louise Penny's Inspector Gamache series several years ago, and thoroughly enjoyed them. Desperate to find something I could read in my post-flu fatigue, I bought this on my Kindle, but in the end I read Why Did You Lie? first. When I did get on to this, I just couldn't understand why it had taken me so long to pick up this fourth Inspector Gamache book. Penny creates a world which could so easily be trite and twee, but it isn't, or not in my eyes, at least; it's somehow the best of the real world, murders notwithstanding. It's what the real world might be like if we all slowed down a bit. But it's not just the environment that Penny creates, it's her characters too; even the bad ones are likeable, because they come across as real people (I am completely smitten with Armand Gamache, and just a little envious of his lovely wife, Reine-Marie).
Unlike the first 3 in the series (if I remember correctly), A Rule against Murder isn't set in the charming little Quebec village of Three Pines, but in a luxurious, secluded hotel (think old-fashioned luxury rather than cool boutique hotel) where the Gamaches go every year to celebrate their wedding anniversary. This year, the other guests consist entirely of the members of one rich family, who are a fascinating lot; the Gamaches spend much time observing them, and decoding their barbed comments to and about each other. After a couple of days, the missing brother, Spot, and his 'dreadful' wife Clare arrive, and it's a surprise to the Gamaches to find that they actually know Spot and Clare rather well. And there's someone else around the property that they recognise... All is in place for the perfect country house murder mystery, and that's what we get. Armand Gamache switches from guest to Chief Inspector, as his wife takes refuge in the B&B in Three Pines, just over the mountains.
The events take place during a heatwave, but I read this during our skiing holiday last week, tucked up in the chalet while it snowed outside, and despite the difference in weather conditions, it somehow fitted perfectly.
I have already bought the next in the series, and I won't be waiting long to enjoy it.
>45 raton-liseur: I read about half of Please Look after Mother a few weeks ago, but it was just as I was coming down with the flu, and I didn't manage to finish it before it had to go back to the library. I was enjoying it less than I'll Be Right There, but still enough to make me want to get the book out again and finish it. Actually, I think I would appreciate it more now, with more of a break since I read I'll Be Right There. (As you may know, it won the Man Asian Literary Prize a few years ago).
>46 rachbxl: I really love the Three Pines series, Rachel. I’m all caught up, however, and hope it isn’t too long before a new one.
>48 NanaCC: Yes, I thought of you as I was reading it, Colleen. I think we started reading them about the same time a few years back, and I've seen from your threads that you carried on.
>42 rachbxl: I've added this to my wishlist. I read the prologue in an online preview - what a great start!
>47 rachbxl: I did not know the book had won a prize. I feel it's strange that some of us read very little French contemporary literature, including (as I do myself) consciously avoiding prizes like the Goncourt, while what we get from foreign literatures are mainly books who got prizes of some kind, and we enjoy them.
It makes me wonder why we love foreign literatures and we do not shy from prized books when we do in our own country. And I wonder as well if it's the same : the real gems are not prized books and we miss all the best of foreign literature altogether.
Pondering over the subject at the moment, as I am reading too many US books, and as my last book purchase included two Korean authors (along with a Dutch and a Mauritian one. No French because nothing appeals to me at the moment, and consciously no US as they are already too well represented in my current reads.).
>50 rhian_of_oz: Yes! It drew me in right away.
>51 auntmarge64: I hope you manage to find one.
>52 raton-liseur: I agree that the real gems are not necessarily the books that win the prizes, and that we miss a lot of them (even in our own language, I would say, though LT helps me with that) because they pass under the radar. I tend to avoid prize-winners even in translation/in the other languages I read, which sometimes strikes me as a bit silly, as I think I miss out on some good ones there, too (just because a book has won a major prize doesn't mean I won't enjoy it), though my recent experience with the winner of a major Spanish prize made me wish I'd stuck to my guns! In the case of Please Look after Mother, when I took I'll Be Right There back to the library, the librarian recommended Please Look after Mother, which she had read recently herself...and it was only when I took it off the shelf I saw that it had won the Man Asian, and that it had sold over a million copies worldwide. I was put off by both those things, but I told myself not to be silly...but as I still haven't finished the book, I don't know if it was worth it or not.
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle
I thought this was a re-read, but it really didn't ring any bells, so maybe I didn't read it as a teenager after all. I'm glad I've made up for it now; what a lovely little book this is. Three children, accompanied by three witches (for want of a better word), travel through time and space in search of the father of two of the children, a brilliant scientist who disappeared a couple of years previously. Local gossips say he has run off with another woman, but Meg and Charles Wallace know he wouldn't have left them by choice.
I haven't made it sound like much, but I loved it. It's both gentle and immensely thought-provoking. I really wish I'd read it as a teen, as it's the kind of book that opens mental doors and makes the imagination soar.
Not in any way to lessen your enjoyment of A Wrinkle in Time (a book I loved so much as a child), but it did win the Newbery Award.
>55 RidgewayGirl: that’s ok, I hadn’t heard of the Newbery Award so it doesn’t count ;-)
>42 rachbxl: I'm glad Sigurdardottir turned out a good thriller. I used to read her detective series until I found it too formulaic and stopped (although I did read a standalone a while back that I thought ok).
Did you read Mingarelli's A Meal in Winter? It's bleak but I thought it a powerful story. I see he has a new book up for the Man Booker International Prize, Four Soldiers which I dropped into my BD basket. Have you read it?
>55 RidgewayGirl: >56 rachbxl: RidgeawayGirl, I loved your comment! There are too many prices, seems like all book got at least one prize, from a small village or group of readers nobody heard about...
>55 RidgewayGirl: I avoid French prices but am more flexible regarding foreign litterature and prizes. And I have the feeling that most foreign litterature that comes to us has indeed won a price (or the author has, for one book or another). It is juste a feeling, but I'm glad you can find books that have been published in France with no prize attached to it. It means that publishers are still on the look for nice books rather than sticking to easily marketable products.
>46 rachbxl: I’ve been rationing myself with the Louise Penny books - I suspect they would lose a bit of charm if you read too many together. Tempting though that is...
- Prizes - I find I mostly ignore prizes for books in English, but for other literatures where I don’t know my way around as well, they can sometimes be a useful way in. At least you can say you’ve dipped into the two or three most talked-about writers before you start digging in deeper to find the ones who appeal to you personally.
- Iceland - I got rapped on the fingers a while back for not knowing how Icelandic names work - apparently the patronymic isn’t a substitute for a surname, it’s an addition to the given name, so for someone like Yrsa Sigurðardóttir who doesn’t use a surname, you shelve her under “Y” in alphabetical order and can refer to her as “Yrsa” or “Yrsa Sigurðardóttir” but never “Sigurðardóttir” on its own. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Icelandic_name
(I read and quite enjoyed The legacy a while ago, but haven’t got round to looking for any more yet - I should.)
>59 thorold: re: Icelandic - huh, that's something I didn't know either. Very interesting.
>57 avaland: Yes, I had a similar experience with Yrsa’s detective series, and I stopped reading.
I haven’t read A Meal in Winter, but it’s on my wishlist, and even before you mentioned it something reminded me recently that I want to read it soon. Haven’t read Four Soldiers either.
>59 thorold: I agree about the need to ration Louise Penny, and in fact it was because of that that I stopped reading them when I did. It would be easy to race through them, but I do fear they would lose their charm, and that would be a shame. I only intended a break of a few months, though, and it turned into several years. I’m currently reading the next one, but I’m taking it slowly, and I’ve told myself that after that I’ll have a little break.
Very interesting about Icelandic names; I had no idea (as you spotted). You can see from my response to avaland, higher up this post, that I have taken it on board (though it feels odd to refer to her just as ‘Yrsa’!)
>62 labfs39: Yes, it's good diversion reading; hope you enjoy it, Lisa.
>63 avaland: I look forward to seeing what you make of Tropic of Violence. Also looking forward to your thoughts on the Four Soldiers. I picked up A Meal in Winter in a second-hand bookshop the other day; I might not have noticed it had you not put it back near the top of my mental wishlist.
I have some catching up to do here! I haven't been posting, but I've been reading.
LaRose by Louise Erdrich
I'd been keeping half an eye out for novels by Erdrich ever since I enjoyed a couple of her short stories several years ago, and I found this in the library recently (I say 'found' because it was in the treasure-trove of a library where books are shelved by order of acquisition, not alphabetically. There is a catalogue, but I don't use it because I like the element of surprise).
Out hunting one day, Landreaux, a Native American, shoots and kills his neighbour's young son. After much anguish, he and his wife (but mainly him) decide to take inspiration from their Native American traditions and give their own son, LaRose, close in age to the dead boy, to their neighbours, to right the wrong. I found the gentle examination of how various members of the two families react to this fascinating and moving: the dead boy's mother (who is also LaRose's aunt, though she is estranged from her sister, his mother), consumed with grief, who initially cannot fathom how anyone could think that this boy could replace hers...and yet, with time, she lets him in, in her own grief-stricken way (why won't LaRose eat all the cakes she makes for him?); the dead boy's older sister, Maggie, already troubled, and a trouble-maker at school, whose parents leave her to cope alone with the loss of her brother and the arrival of this new one; the dead boy's father, Peter, a kind, gentle man who feels the suffering of all around him and cannot put it right; Landreaux, who needs to believe that he has done the right thing in giving LaRose away; his wife, LaRose's mother, who initially accepts as inevitable that they must give LaRose away, and her struggles to deal with it; LaRose's fabulous older sisters, Snow and Josette, who claim poor, lost Maggie as their new sister and help her discover her talent for sports, giving her life a meaning it hadn't had before. There is also a wonderful supporting cast of relatives, friends, the odd enemy, neighbours, who all together create a close-knit community which is so real I am sure it must exist somewhere. The story of LaRose, the boy, is intertwined with the stories of various ancestors, also called LaRose (before him, all female), giving the weight of history and tradition to what happens to the current LaRose.
The Winter Ghosts by Kate Mosse
An atmospheric ghost story set in the foothills of the Pyrenees. Still mourning the loss of his beloved brother in World War I, in 1928 Freddie undertakes what is supposed to be a restorative journey through the south of France. It's the middle of winter, and his car spins off the road up in the mountains. He manages to walk to a village down in the valley, and the owner of the boarding house tells him he would be welcome to attend the annual village dinner, taking place that night. At the dinner, a meticulous recreation of a medieval banquet, with everyone but him dressed in medieval costume, Freddie meets a beautiful woman, Fabrissa, who captivates him. They spend the night talking, and understand each other perfectly, and when trouble breaks out at the banquet they escape to the hills through a secret passage. They agree to see each other the following day, but Freddie can find no trace of her, nor anyone who knows her. What's more, the owner of the boarding house regrets that Freddie didn't accept her invitation to the dinner… But Freddie is determined to find Fabrissa, and his determination leads him to uncover a secret that has been undisturbed for centuries.
A quick read, well-told and a pleasure to read. Of course, a large degree of suspension of disbelief was needed, but I was willing. I let myself be carried along, and I enjoyed the ride.
Astonishing Splashes of Colour by Clare Morrall
Appropriately enough, it was the astonishing splashes of colour on the spine (the cover is yellow) that made me pull this one off the library shelves. I had never heard of this novel, nor of Clare Morrall, although it was shortlisted for the Booker in 2003. This was Morrall's debut, and she has since written 7 more novels.
Kitty grew up in Birmingham, in a large family, the youngest by far. Her mother died when she was very young, and her (not very successful) artist father is big, expansive character who loves her but doesn't understand her. Her several older brothers have always been an important presence in her life, but she wishes she had known her sister, Dinah, who ran away (because she didn't get on with their mother, the family story goes) when Kitty was tiny and hasn't been heard from since. This is a family where the members, even as adults, all spend a lot of time with each other, but where nobody really talks, at least, not about the important stuff.
When we meet Kitty she is disturbed by a recent loss, something so big that she cannot come to terms with it. She strikes a poignant figure, surrounded by people (not just her family, who she tries, but fails, to keep at arm's length, but also her husband, James; they met because they lived in adjacent flats, and as they both like their own space they still live like that) but lonely. They all want to help, and they all mean well, but she is on her own. As her mind unravels, so does the fabric of her life as she knew it, as all the lies are revealed. That's the big story, and it's a good one, but alongside that there are all the little stories, small observations of human behaviour, expressed in a quiet, understated way. I often found myself going back to something I had read a few seconds earlier, as the deliciousness sank in.
I've made it sound quite bleak, but, like LaRose, it's a difficult story which is ultimately uplifting, not in a Hollywood happy-ending kind of way, but in a 'we are human and we find a way' kind of way. I'd like to read more by Morrall.
The Distant Echo by Val McDermid
The first Karen Pirie novel; I had read at least one later one, but it didn't matter.
What to say? McDermid never disappoints. The tight plot, the convincing characters, the setting… I picked this one up whilst visiting my mum last week, and read it quickly as I didn't want to bring it back with me; I read the last chapter in the car to the airport!
It looks like lots of good reading here, Rachel. You’ve reminded me that I keep meaning to read something by Louise Erdrich. I must be the only person who hasn’t read her books.
>68 rachbxl: I agree, McDermid "never disappoints."
>65 rachbxl: Ironically, I have read Erdrich's first, Love Medicine (when it came out) and her dystopia, Future Home of the Living God which I liked well enough but was dissatisfied with the ending. Perhaps I need to read one from in between the two.
>67 rachbxl: Intriguing review.
>65 rachbxl: At a bookstore recently, I picked up, then put down again, LaRose. I wish now that I had purchased it and can't remember why I didn't. Rats.
>66 rachbxl: I've read Sepulchre and Labyrinth by Kate Mosse, and they are very similar in plot to Winter Ghosts. Have you read any of her other books?
>70 avaland: I would recommend The Round House, Lois. I thought it so much better than Love Medicine and its ilk. LaRose sounds good too.
The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker
I have read almost everything Pat Barker has published, much of it when I was in my 20s, and I have always admired her greatly as a writer, without ever really feeling an emotional connection, without ever really being bowled over...until now. I loved, loved, loved The Silence of the Girls, her take on The Iliad, which she turns on its head by making it about the women, not the men, except that it's still all about the men because the women have no voice. One of those wonderful books that I wanted to rush straight through, whilst simultaneously never wanting it to end.
>75 labfs39: Hi Lisa. Yes, I read the Regeneration trilogy when it first came out, and I really enjoyed it, just as I’ve enjoyed everything of hers that I’ve read, which is almost, but not quite, everything she’s published. But not in the way that I enjoyed The Silence of the Girls, which is Barker reaching whole new heights, for me, anyway.
Circe has been on my wishlist since it came out, as I liked Miller’s The Song of Achilles so much.
>76 rachbxl: Hmm, if you liked it better than the Regeneration trilogy, that says a lot to me. Onto the list it goes.
I loved Song of Achilles too and have Circe sitting on my shelf. I've wanted to reread the relevant section of the Odyssey first and (a flimsy excuse) can't find my copy. I should go online and read it as soon as I've finished Jane Eyre.
>77 labfs39: I don’t know. I rarely re-read (too many books), but my reaction to The Silence of the Girls has made me think about re-reading Regeneration. As I said, I liked it at the time, but I wonder if my 40-something self might get more out of it than my 20-something self did.
That sounds like me, unable to read Go Set a Watchman, which a friend gave me as soon as it came out, before I re-read To Kill a Mockingbird. I could easily get it from the library, but I’m sure I’ve got a copy somewhere...
>74 rachbxl: I’ve been thinking about this book. Haven’t read anything by Barker before, despite tons of positive reviews by Club Readers.
(Similar problem with Erdrich. I’ve thought about reading Round House for years, before LT, I think...)
Enjoyed catching up here.
>74 rachbxl: I have always admired her greatly as a writer, without ever really feeling an emotional connection, without ever really being bowled over...until now.
Thank you for - I was going to say for putting my thoughts into words, but that's not quite right - as I hadn't consciously thought this - but it sums up exactly how I felt about The Silence of the Girls compared to previous Barkers I've read.
In recent weeks I've abandoned 2 books, as I'm not in the mood to give the benefit of the doubt and carry on just in case. The first, the first volume of Javier Marias's Tu rostro manana trilogy (Your Face Tomorrow, I was really sorry to set aside, as I'd been wanting to read it for years. I read and enjoyed 2 of Marias's early novels over 20 years ago, when they were pushed upon me when I lived in Spain, the first, Todas las almas (All Souls) because it's about a Spaniard in Oxford, and as I was a recent Cambridge graduate living in Spain, a Spanish writer I knew thought I might enjoy reading about the experience the other way. And the second, Corazon tan blanco (A Heart So White), because when I told one of my private English students that I had enjoyed Todas las almas, she lent me this, saying she liked it even more. I, too, liked it even more, and that's not all. Corazon tan blanco is narrated by an interpreter, and it's to this novel that I owe my choice of profession. In other words, I have a soft spot for Javier Marias, even though the last book of his I read, Los enamoramientos (The Infatuations), I found quite hard going because it was so wordy, though I did finish it. The wordiness was my big problem with Tu rostro manana, too. I remember A Heart So White and All Souls as being much more to the point (they are much slimmer than either The Infatuations or this last one), whereas here I got frustrated with words, words, words (let's face it, I get more than enough superfluous words at work). After 100 pages the story hadn't really got underway, and I gave up. This may well be a case of the right book at the wrong time, but given my lukewarm response to Los enamoramientos, I am unlikely to give this one another chance.
The second was The Book of Salt, by Vietnamese-American writer Monique Truong, which I liked the idea of, but which just wasn't working for me after several chapters.
It was time for a light read to get back into the swing of things:
Truly, Madly, Guilty by Liane Moriarty
I picked this up recently in a second-hand bookshop, having enjoyed Big Little Lies, and I put it aside for an occasion just like this, when I wanted something light but well-written. Cellist Clementine and her non-musician Sam are invited, with their two small daughters, to their friends' house for afternoon tea. Erika is Clementine's 'best friend' (though we discover that their friendship is far from straightforward), and she is married to Oliver. Erika and Oliver are uptight and childless, with not a thing out of place in their pristine home; they start out as the misfits, the oddballs, but as we learn their respective backgrounds and see more of them, they become increasingly sympathetic (they don't change, but they start to make sense). When Clementine and her family turn up at Erika and Oliver's house, they learn that after a quick afternoon tea, they are all invited next door for a barbeque at the house of the larger-than-life neighbour Vid, and his wife, Tiffany; Erika felt compelled to accept the invitation even though social events like that really aren't her thing, and even though she and Oliver have a very specific reason for inviting Clementine and her family round and seeing them in private. Anyway, off to the barbeque they go, and in the next couple of hours something happens that will knock them all off course. Liane Moriarty skilfully keeps exactly what happens a secret until halfway through the novel, whilst building up to it. I couldn't stop reading to find out what it was, and once I knew, I couldn't stop reading to find out what happened to them all. Moriarty tells a great story, but for me what she excels at is portraying realistic characters, who are likeable because they are so human, rather than because they are just nice.
>83 rachbxl: A shame you had to give up on the trilogy - for me, it's Marias at his best and most complex. I really enjoyed all the stuff about the civil war and the professor/spy. And the skill with which he avoids advancing the storyline...
But I can see that it's a book you have to approach at the right moment in your life: if you're not in the mood for "wordy" at present, it's obviously not going to work for you. And he hasn't got any less wordy since then - Berta Isla and Así empieza lo malo are every bit as circuitous in getting to the point as Los enamoramientos.
>84 rachbxl: We all need some light stuff from time to time. Palate-cleansers, I think. Great review of the Moriarty.
>85 thorold: Yes, I was looking forward to the civil war stuff, and the professor/spy. But I think you're right; it's just not for me now. Maybe it will be right at some point in the future, who knows? It's true that my tolerance for wordy and circuitous is particularly low at the moment.
>86 avaland: Absolutely. I'm always pleased to find someone who writes light stuff well.
Tangerine by Christine Mangan
I loved the setting of this novel, 1950s Tangier, just as Morocco gains its independence. Whilst this isn't the subject of the novel, the uncertainty, the questions, the shifts in power from one day to the next between locals and foreigners, different perceptions of who belongs and who doesn't...all of this reflects the much more personal story at the heart of the novel, a story involving Alice, a young British woman, recently married (but clearly not very happily so), who has moved to Tangier to be with her husband, John. John loves the city passionately, but Alice feels out of place and is reluctant to leave their small flat. The arrival of her old friend Lucy, her room-mate from their years at an exclusive US college, sounds like a good thing...but why is Lucy there, exactly? What does she want with Alice? And who is Lucy really? Mangan does a good job of building up the suspense, and not letting it go until it is almost unbearable. I did enjoy reading this, but I had to suspend disbelief in order to accept how Lucy was always a step ahead, and to accept that Alice was really so helpless. Still, an entertaining read with a great sense of place.
The Man Who Disappeared by Clare Morrall
In April I read Morrall's first novel, Astonishing Splashes of Colour; it made the Booker shortlist in 2003, but I'd never heard of Morrall, and I only picked it up because its colourful spine stood out on the library shelves. I really enjoyed it, and said I wanted to read more of her work. All too often, when I say that kind of thing I leave it so long that I end up forgetting, and I didn't want to do that here. Fortunately, the library has The Man Who Disappeared as well, and I'm glad they did, because I liked it even more than Astonishing Splashes.
Kate's comfortable middle-class life with Felix and their 3 children falls apart when Felix disappears, and falls apart still further when it becomes clear that he has disappeared because the police are after him as part of a huge money-laundering investigation. Impossible! The Felix Kate knows, the one she has spent over 25 years with, wouldn't do anything like that. The Felix Kate knows was an upstanding citizen, a successful accountant, pillar of the community, excellent husband and father. But really, how well do we know anyone else? If Astonishing Splashes featured a quite eccentric, atypical family who were so lifelike they walked off the page, here, the characters are utterly ordinary, any old family, but they are every bit as lifelike, the children as well as Kate and Felix, and the minor characters too. I was really impressed by Clare Morrall's portrayal of Birmingham in her first novel; the setting almost becomes a character in its own right, and here she does the same with Exeter and the surrounding area (Morrall was born in Exeter and has lived mainly in Birmingham).
>88 rachbxl: I’m so glad to see that you liked this book. I thought Mangan did a really good job with building the suspense. Yes, there were some unbelievable bits, but I was able to overlook them, as well. I loved the cover on mine. It was so Alfred Hitchcock, and appropriate for the time.
For weeks I’ve been wondering if I would remember what I’ve read when I finally got round to writing about it. The answer is no, at least in part. I can remember one book, but I know there’s at least one other...!
Here’s the one I can remember:
Listy miłości by Maria Nurowska
(I don’t think any of her (many) works have been translated into English, but the title means ‘Love Letters’).
So that I can tell my boss with a clear conscience that I have been working on my Polish again, I read a book in Polish (that’s not quite what he means, but not to worry). I chose this one because having read one-and-a-half of Nurowska’s other books, I know she tells a good story. This time, the story begins in the Warsaw ghetto, with a 19-year old girl who could have stayed outside with her Aryan mother, but who decided to accompany her beloved Jewish father instead (this was the first of several instances in the book where I would have liked to know more about her motivation). Realising that she and her father are starving to death, along with all around them, she turns to prostitution to support them. She breaks her father’s heart (and he dies anyway). She quickly becomes the favourite whore of a German officer; she turns down his offer of marriage, but accepts his offer of false papers, and escapes from the ghetto, with no intention of going to the flat he has rented for her. Instead, she flees, and, fearing that she is being followed, throws herself upon the mercy of an older woman who opens a door she knocks on. The old woman lives with her young grandson, whose mother is in Auschwitz (I wanted to know why), and whose father is off fighting with the partisans. When the latter reappears, the two of them fall in love, and the novel takes the form of a series of letters, spanning several decades, from her to him, explaining who she really is.
What I liked, apart from the predictably good yarn, was the refresher course in Polish history since WW2; it’s all there. What frustrated me, as I said, was that all too often there was no reason given for Krystyna to behave in a given way (why did she never seek out her mother, for example? Her repeated statements that she just didn’t want to didn’t really convince me). Maybe someone who had lived through those times themselves would understand her motivation better, but at times she did seem to me to ping around to suit the story. I also found that the structure (series of love letters) didn’t quite work. She had to give lots of information to allow the reader to understand, but it was often information that her lover/husband would have had already...why the need to spell out to him his own family history, for example, or details of his own career?
Anyway, it was good enough to make me think that I should, after all these years, finish the book I said i’d read half of.
I remembered about this one in the middle of the night. I’m sure there’s another one, though. Recently I also had to return 2 partially read books to the library (The Girl in the Polka-dot Dress by Beryl Bainbridge and Hubert Mingarelli’s Quatre soldats (Four Soldiers); I thought I didn’t want to finish them, but in view of how much I’ve been thinking about them both, I’ll be borrowing them again ASAP).
A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
Translated from the Swedish by Henning Koch
Ove is a cantankerous old widower who lives life by the rules and expects others to do likewise. Things start to change when an Iranian woman, pregnant with her 3rd child, moves in next door with her husband and their two daughters. That’s about it as far as the plot goes, but this is a lovely portrait of a grumpy old man, a marriage, and various more or less unlikely friendships. Ove is one of the best characters I’ve encountered in a long time (he reminded me of my dad, so I passed my copy on to my stepmother; the next day a friend told me she had passed hers on to HER stepmother for the same reason!)
Of course, when reading a translation it’s always difficult to know whether any stilted bits come from the original or the translation, but there were a couple of things that made me raise my eyebrows (I can’t quote as, as I said, I no longer have the book, but for example something about someone’s temper flaring up like the saloon doors in a western movie...???) I’ve just looked the translator up, and he turns out to be Swedish rather than a native English speaker, which probably explains it.
Please Look After Mom goes down as one of the books I've despised the most. I simply hated everything about it, but mostly I hated how manipulative it was. And I read it twice, because I was writing a review for Belletrista and had to come up with something positive to say, and really couldn't. I will never get those hours back. At the time there was an excellent negative review from the NYTs (I think)
The Winter Ghosts sounds like fun!
>92 rachbxl: I too loved the character of Ove. He was simple yet complex at the same time. Wonderfully well-drawn. Do you think you will read any of the others? I liked my grandmother asked me to tell you she's sorry, too. And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer is almost painfully exquisite. I didn't like Beartown.
>96 rhian_of_oz: I might have liked Beartown less because it was a modern family drama, and I was looking for more of the same Ove-type books. I did purchase the sequel, Us Against You, because I am a completist, but I haven't read it yet. Did you?
97> I'm so glad you enjoyed it then! I always worry that my recommendations will fall flat for a reader; it's nice to hear this one didn't. I hope you like My Grandmother, it's my second favorite.
Greetings! I've just joined this group and spending a bit of time dropping into folks' threads and seeing what they've read. Just amazing how many interesting books there are to read. I haven't read any of the books on your 2019 list. I did read Pat Barker's Life Class several years ago, which I liked quite a lot. Well, cheers, and I'll look forward to reading your reviews going forward.
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