Glitch on Girl, Reading!

Just a very quick post this evening to apologise to anyone who’s tried to comment on my blog over the last few days. Apparently comments aren’t being accepted for some unknown reason, but rest assured I’m trying to find a fix! If any other WordPress users have had this problem and know how to resolve it please do get in touch via Twitter or my Facebook page – I’d really appreciate any help you can offer. With any luck everything will be running as it should very soon…

 

Books I want but don’t need #1

Books are like shoes…and handbags…and lipsticks…there are ALWAYS ones you see that you want but very definitely DO NOT need.

And now Christmas is coming, which is the worst/best time for a book addict as the bookshops become filled to bursting with glorious temptations of the literary kind.  I’m hoping that by sharing some pics of the books I want (but definitely do not need) I’ll get them out of my system and save myself from book-induced bankruptcy.

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See, now this looks gorgeous doesn’t it?  I have a bit of obsession with medieval manuscripts (slightly odd, I know) so was instantly drawn to this.  But I’m restraining myself because, let’s be honest, it would take me about a year to read such is its tome-like status, and I already have a number of beautiful books that cover the same subject.  So reluctantly I’m putting this into the “want not need” category.

There will be more to follow over the coming weeks on the blog without a doubt.  Do let me know which books are giving you the come hither look right now…

“Painter of Silence” by Georgina Harding – review

I’ve had this on my shelf for a few years; a slim, unassuming book that didn’t scream “read me now”, but I finally picked it up simply because I wasn’t sure what else I was in the mood for.  The contents are as understated as the exterior, but this is a novel that’s all the more powerful for its restraint.  On reflection, the subject matter is extremely harrowing, yet at the time of reading there was almost a dreamlike quality to events, as if everything was covered in delicate gauze that prevented the worst of the horrors from seeming completely real.  This isn’t a criticism; far from it.  In fact, as you get under the skin of the characters, the writing style starts to make perfect sense.

We first meet Augustin as a young man in 1950s Romania when, destitute and on the verge of a physical breakdown, he makes his way to the city hospital in Iaşi.  Once there, the medical staff are mystified as to how he got into his current state, since the patient doesn’t utter a single word and barely attempts to interact with anyone.  Then, as if ordained by fate, a new nurse appears on the ward and recognises the man she hasn’t seen for close to a decade.  Safta, the nurse, seems to know how to get through to Augustin, bringing him blank paper and a pencil.  Slowly but surely, the weak and isolated man begins to draw, just as he did many years ago.

From then on the novel progresses in a series of episodes alternating between Augustin’s youth and the 1950s.  We learn that Safta and Augustin were companions through much of their childhood, the boy being the son of a servant working in the grand country house belonging to Safta’s family.  Yet these most unlikely of friends are not only polar opposites in terms of class: while Safta lives a normal life of social interactions with sibling, cousins and friends, Augustin inhabits a world that only he can fully understand.  His silence in the hospital wasn’t, as many suspected, a physical reaction to a traumatic event; Augustin was in fact born a deaf-mute.  Kind-hearted Safta is the only one of his peers who makes any effort to befriend him and they develop an unspoken connection that continues for several years.  As time passes, however, Safta is lured away by the heady infatuation of her first romance and the prospect of adventures in a world that extends far beyond the family estate, and Augustin is left almost entirely without companionship.  And loneliness is not the only threat he faces, for the second world war is looming large on the horizon.

Although Augustin is the only one of the main characters whom we follow during the war years, back in the 1950s we begin to get a sense of how the conflict still echoes in the hearts and minds of those who lost members of their family or, and this is almost worse, those who still don’t know for sure whether their loved ones are alive or dead.  The Stalinist regime that took hold as the conflict drew to a close has also left the country in a state of paranoia and unease.  Adriana, one of Safta’s colleagues at the hospital, takes Augustin in and pretends at first that he’s her long-lost son, but she knows it’s only a matter of time before his presence will arouse suspicion and questions will start being asked by the neighbours and the authorities.  All of this leads me back to the feeling I described at the start of this review, that the novel’s events seemed ever so slightly distant to the reader, with the worst of the physical and emotional horrors kept an arm’s length away.  This sensation of being very much an observer, putting the emotional experiences of the characters together from fragments of their lives and trying to fill in the blank spaces – some of which last years – as best we can with our imagination is, I’m sure, a very deliberate choice on the author’s part.  Augustin himself lives in a state of being permanently divided from the rest of the world by his deafness and inability to communicate to others the nuances of his feelings, and for much of the book it’s as if we’re seeing events in the same way that he does – seeing and examining but never able to fully participate.  Safta too has to be content with imagining the terrible things to which her friends and family were subjected during the war after she left to escape Romania.  At one point she returns with Augustin to their old home, but he will never manage to describe to her the hellish things he saw or the effect they had upon him.  This clever novel is never about having tragedy pushed in your face through graphic or histrionic depiction.  It’s about watching, listening and then putting the pieces together to come to an empathetic understanding – just as it is for the characters themselves.

“Painter of Silence” is a novel that really sneaks up on you.  It’s quiet, thoughtful and the charatcer of Augustin, particularly during his childhood years, will tug at your heartstrings like never before.

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My Top 5 Tearjerkers

I’m going to put this out there straight away: I cry a lot.  Charity TV adverts make me weep.  If someone writes something particularly nice in a greetings card, more tears.  I start crying telling people about things that have made me cry!  It verges on the ridiculous, is a constant source of embarrassment (many friends who’ve made the mistake of seeing a sad film at the cinema with me will testify to that) and it is also the subject of today’s blog.

The word “tearjerker” conjures up, for me at least, a very specific type of novel: Nicholas Sparks, maybe, or “The Fault in our Stars”.  If I stuck with that definition then this would be a very short article indeed as I usually steer clear of books with an overtly emotional theme.  Thinking over my reading history, however, there are still many books that have in places reduced me to a soggy mess of tears, despite the fact that you may not think of them as fitting the model of your classic tearjerker.  So I thought it would be interesting to share with you today the top 5 books that made me cry!

  1. The Mayor of Casterbridge – I first read this when I was studying it in sixth form and have vivid memories of having to hide watery eyes from my soulless classmates. Michael Henchard has got to be one of the most tragic figures in literature, his character failings bringing him crashing down time and time again in spite of his constant battle to make things right.  One of his last wishes is “that no man shall remember me”:  cue violent sobbing…
  2. Memoirs of a Geisha – to be denied a life that one could, and should by rights have had, is an almost unimaginable cruelty. But the agony of unrequited love is perhaps the greatest cruelty of them all.  There’s a line from this novel that I remember as if I only read it yesterday and it gets me every time it comes to mind:

 

“What if I came to the end of my life and realised that I’d spent every day watching for a man who would never come to me? …And yet if I draw my thoughts back from him, what life would I have?”

Anyone who’s ever experienced a love that was not returned will recognise the excruciating pain behind this paradox; the author hits the emotional nail right on the head.

  1. Ptolemy’s Gate – if you’ve never come across it, this is the final part of the Bartimaeus trilogy, a series of young adult novels featuring a boy magician and his wise-cracking demon accomplice. I think this might win the prize for the most emotionally shattering end to a series ever – when I’d finished I was in floods of tears…and then had to go back and read the last couple of pages again just to make sure I’d read what I thought I’d read!  Heart-wrenching but superb.
  2. The Boleyn Inheritance – this might seem a bit of an odd one to include on a list of tearjerkers, but I found this novel in Philippa Gregory’s Tudor series surprisingly upsetting. The reason is the author’s exceptionally clever take on Katherine Howard; the segments written from her point of view bring home precisely what she was, namely a naïve teenager manipulated by the trusted adults around her in their quest for power.  The horror lies in the fact that we know the terrible fate of this poor girl, but in this interpretation she is pathetically unaware of what is happening to her even in her final days.  It’s genuinely very emotional.
  3. The Shock of the Fall – this was one of the books everyone was talking about last year, and if you haven’t read it yet I’d thoroughly recommend it. Tears will be shed I promise you…and yet somehow, despite the fact that it deals with some very tough issues such as childhood death and severe mental illness, it doesn’t leave you feeling overwhelmed with sadness.  The image of a little girl burying her doll, however, in a scene whose significance bookends the novel, will stay with you for a long time.

Hopefully today’s blog post hasn’t thoroughly depressed everyone!  I do maintain there’s nothing like a good cry though, so as ever feel free to share the books that reduced you to tears!

Coming up on Girl, Reading…

Just a quick post to let you know some of the things that are coming up on Girl, Reading over the coming days…I’ve just started two very different novels and am enjoying them both so far. “Early One Morning” starts with an act of impulse during the Second World War and goes on to explore how the repercussions of such an act reverberate long after the crisis itself has passed.  “The Light Years” is completely different; the first book in the famous Cazalet Chronicles, it’s one I’ve always meant to read but never got round to, and already I’m thoroughly immersed in its world.  As there’s nothing like a good cry, I’ll be sharing with you some of my favourite weepies, and on a much more sombre note, I’ll also be writing about “Hiroshima”, the journalistic piece written by John Hersey in the immediate aftermath of the atomic bomb that has been reissued by Penguin to mark 70 years since the attack.

Until next time…

Beating the blogging hiatus…

Urgh, I’ve failed miserably at being a blogger this week!  If there was ever a time when life got well and truly in the way of the things I usually love to do, then this has been it.  Rest assured, if you’re one of the lovely people who follow my blog (and huge thanks to everyone who’s stuck with me during my first few months) I promise you I will have some articles going online very shortly!  First up will be a review of the thoroughly enjoyable “The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton” – expect to see this on Girl, Reading soon.  Time to knuckle down and get typing, methinks… hope to see you all on the blog again before too long.

Why I love… Thomas Hardy

Today’s blog is a little tribute to the man who is perhaps my favourite novelist writing in the Victorian age.  I’ve always felt slightly sorry for him, believing – probably incorrectly – that he loses out in the popularity stakes compared to some of the other nineteenth century novelists.  He doesn’t have Dickens’ verbosity and larger than life characters, or Austen’s tightly wound love stories that set pulses quickening through their very restraint.  The qualities that he does have in abundance, though, happen to be ones that appeal very much to my nature and are the reason I find his stories resonate so deeply with me.  First and foremost, Thomas Hardy is honest.  Bad things happen to good people with no guarantee that divine justice will right things in the end.  Even when people manage to find some level of comfort and contentment in their lives, many of them will end their days carrying around an underlying sadness, regretting those from the past that slipped away or the things that didn’t go to plan.  In short, life is cruel and there’s nothing anyone can do to change that.

“But he’s so miserable!” is a response I’ve heard on numerous occasions when professing my love for his books.  Well, yes – I have to concede that some of his novels contain a few pretty horrific goings-on.  I can totally see how his choice of subject matter could be off-putting and I pass no judgement on anyone who feels that way!  I suppose the reason why I choose to read his books is the overwhelming sense that his characters are just doing what so many of us are doing: fighting to survive, thrive and find love and hope in a world that can at times present us with the toughest, most unjust and undeserved of obstacles.  And I also have to admire a writer who can provoke in me a physical reaction to the pain of his fictional creations; there are times while reading his stories that my stomach ties itself in knots so acutely do I feel his characters’ plight.

The more appealing side to Hardy, if it’s right to call it that, is his beautiful portrayal of rural England.  When I think of his books I can’t help but think of scenes akin to a Constable painting; in essence, a landscape and a way of life that is now vanished forever.  It would be inaccurate to claim that Hardy himself intended these backdrops to be purely idyllic; the communities he depicts do not exist in a serene bubble but are subject to the uncertainty that pervades any era, as technology advances and people have to adjust to changes of all sorts as time marches on.  Reading the books over a century later, however, the sense is one of nostalgia as much as unease.  I’ve always been drawn to the old-fashioned rather than the current, the comfort of the past rather than the excitement of the future, so getting lost in a rustic Victorian existence for a couple of hundred pages plays to my natural inclinations.

If I was going to recommend a Thomas Hardy novel to start you off if you’ve not read him before, I would definitely put forward “The Woodlanders”.  It’s not got the crushing trauma of some of the others and is a very enjoyable read; it’s also probably my personal favourite, although it’s very a very tight call between that and “The Mayor of Casterbridge”!  If you’re also a Hardy fan I’d love to hear what your favourite is…

Happy reading!

“The Ecliptic” by Benjamin Wood – review

It’s so much easier to write a review when you can start with a brief, pithy sentence to sum up the book, outlining the genre, plot or characters and giving your readers an idea of what kind of novel we’re dealing with.  I finished “The Ecliptic” yesterday and to be honest, I’m not even able to encapsulate its essence in a way that’s comprehensible to me, let alone anyone else.  It’s indefinable – and superb.  It lures you in and then throws you off course until, by the time you’ve reached the explosive final section, your mind has taken a real battering.  If you enjoy books that confound your initial expectations then this is definitely for you.

The story starts in a somewhat unusual setting: Portmantle, an island refuge off the Turkish coast that caters for artists who have lost their inspiration.  The institution is overseen by the provost, who maintains an orderly community free from any luxuries or distractions, in which poets, painters, architects and all sort of creatives can rediscover their flair and motivation.  The trade-off for anyone coming to this sanctuary is the mandatory severing of all ties to the outside world.  No communication with friends or family is permitted.  Any possessions a resident is allowed to keep are of the most basic kind.  Once the gates to the refuge have closed behind you, even your name is sacrificed as it is considered a reminder of your former life that can only weigh you down.  All the artists living here have assumed names picked at random from the telephone directory – at first we know the novel’s main character only as those in Portmantle know her: Knell.

Knell, however, is telling her own story, and we soon learn that she is really Elspeth Conroy, a young Scottish painter who moved away from her working class roots and became a shining light of the London art scene.  The events of her life before Portmantle unfold in flashback, and a picture emerges of a lonely, troubled young woman struggling to maintain her artistic integrity in a world of self-promotion and superficial adulation, where the name above the gallery door is more important than any depth of meaning in the art itself.  Events take a turn for the worse, and then for the worse again, leading up to her admittance to the mysterious sanctuary that she hopes will be her salvation.

The refuge itself is one of the most cleverly created settings I’ve ever come across in a novel.  Its purpose is to allow artists to reach the point where they feel ready to return to the outside world with their creativity restored – and yet the author manages to filter in an underlying sense of unease as regards this unconventional place.  It reminded me of the school in Kazuo Ishiguro’s “Never Let me Go”: you can never put your finger on exactly what it is that makes you feel there’s more going on than meets the eye, but the feeling is definitely there.  When a newcomer, Fullerton, arrives at the gates, the island’s predictability and routine start to unravel.  It’s clear that this tormented young man is harbouring some kind of secret – and his coming may turn out to have a significance that no-one could have predicted.

As I said at the beginning, there’s no way to sum up this novel, except to say that it’s as enigmatic as the elusive ecliptic of the title.  The only way to get a sense of what I mean is to read it and see for yourself.  If I’ve tempted you to try it I hope you enjoy it as much as I did – it’s certainly something a bit different to take to the beach this summer!

Back in business (sort of!)

A few days ago, while writing a blog post, my laptop turned itself off and I haven’t been able to coax it back to life since!  Hopefully a trip to PC World this afternoon (other computer repair outlets are available!) will fix the problem and I’ll be able to get back to the blogging…

Coming up on Girl, Reading soon (technology permitting) I’ll be reviewing the brilliant Ecliptic by Benjamin Wood, rambling about my latest historical fiction obsession and, as the long-awaited follow up to “To Kill a Mockingbird” is released, I’ll be thinking about other classic novels that I wish had been continued.

In the meantime I wish you all a lot of happy reading in the sunshine!

The Liebster Award!

First off I’d like to thank Curiouser and Curiouser and All my love, LJ for both nominating me for the Liebster award.  Apologies for the time it’s taken me to post my responses, I’ve been struggling with a dodgy laptop all week and have been snatching clandestine moments at the work computer!

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This award looks like a fun new way to find new blogs and get to know a little bit more about blogs you follow!  Here are the rules:

  • Each nominee must have under 200 followers
  • Thank and link to the nominated blog
  • Answer their 10 questions and propose 10 new ones for your nominees
  • Nominate 10 blogs and tell them they have been nominated
  • Write a post containing these questions
  • Include these rules in the post

Since I’ve had the honour of being nominated by two lovely bloggers I have 20 questions to answer, so here goes!

First, my 10 questions from Amy @ Curiouser and Curiouser.

1. What is your all time favourite book?  Why?

Such a hard one to start off with!  Normally I’d say I can’t possibly choose, but in the spirit of the Liebster award I’m going to stick my neck out and go for “A Suitable Boy”.  It’s just so immense; when you get to the end you feel as if you really have seen all you could possibly see about human life and love.

2. Do you like cooking/baking?  If so, what’s your favourite thing to cook/bake?

Cooking – not really.  I grudgingly make dinner every night simply because I have to eat!  Baking, however – yes!  I’m not the most adventurous baker in the world by any means but I do make a pretty fine chocolate and jam sponge, if I do say so myself…

3. What do you enjoy most about blogging?

I’ve only been blogging for a few months but it’s been brilliant to discover just how many people there are out there who are interested in the same things as me – and who also want to talk about them!

4.  If you could travel to one country in the world, where would it be and why?

I’m not as well traveled as I’d like to be so there are lots of places I’d like to visit, but I’ve always had a particular fancy for Scandinavia.  I’m not at my best in the heat and sun, so somewhere slightly more on the chilly side definitely appeals!

5. Do you like young adult novels?

It’s not my favourite type of book to read, but there have been some that I thought were amazing.  I think Jenny Valentine is a fabulous author, and I was really surprised at just how much I loved The Hunger Games trilogy as I hadn’t expected it to be my thing at all.

6. What is your favourite genre of music and why?

Now that’s something where I can’t even begin to pin down a favourite.  I love all sorts of music, from Muse to Paloma Faith to Thomas Tallis!

7. If you could only keep 5 possessions what would they be?

All my books count as one possession, right?!  So, my books, number one.  Two, my memory box, made for me years ago by a really great friend and which contains reminders of special people and moments in my life.  Three, my phone – sorry, but I’m lost without it!  Four, my photo albums; I’m one of those dinosaurs who still likes to print out all my pictures and keep physical copies – I much prefer to look at them that way.  Five, my stash of decaf teabags.  I do actually have one in my handbag at all times in case I find myself in a place without tea.

8. If you could meet any author who would it be?  Why?

Vikram Seth – I’d ask him why he’s not getting more of a move on with “A Suitable Girl”!

9. What languages do you speak?  Are there any you want to learn?

French, not bad.  German passable.  What I’d really like to learn is BSL – I think that’s perhaps the language that would be of most use.

10. Which book character do you most identify with?

Without doubt I believe Jane Bennet from Pride and Prejudice to be the historical version of me! We are incredibly alike, and I think we’d get on very well!

And here are my 10 questions from All my love, LJ.

1. Do you have a book that made you fall in love with reading? What is it, and why do you love it so much?

I don’t think I can pin my love of reading down to any one particular book; I’ve just loved books for as long as I can remember.  It didn’t take one amazing book to switch me on to reading, I guess I was pretty much born that way!

2. What are your favourite genres to read?  Why do you like them so much?

Historical fiction is my favourite genre without a doubt.  For me, it’s because travelling to another time is a form of escapism, an absolute break from the everyday.

3. If you could save 5 books from a fire, which ones would they be?

Such a hard choice!  But I’m going to go with: “The Meaning of Night”, “Seasons in Fern Hollow” (a childhood favourite), my lovely HB edition of “Winnie the Pooh”, the very well-thumbed Riverside Chaucer and my complete works of Shakespeare.

4. Do you believe in magic?

I believe true magic is to be found in the little miracles of the everyday.

5. What are your other passions/interests?

Wow, lots of things!  I’ll name a few that spring to mind: shopping (I’m very good at that!), cinema-going, yoga and I love visiting old buildings, castles and the like.

6. What are your most/least favourite book to movie adaptations?

My favourite has to be Lord of the Rings.  I found the books a real slog and managed to get through them only so as not to offend the person who eagerly lent them to me!  The films, on the other hand, are some of my top films – I think they capture the magic and wonder of the book’s world without all the, erm, dull bits!  Least favourite… that’s a bit harder as I prefer the book to the film 9 times out of 10.  Actually thinking about it, I was immensely disappointed by the version of Pride and Prejudice with Keira Knightley; I was expecting to love it but I just didn’t think the casting was right at all.

7. What 5 books would you say everyone should read before they die?

“A Suitable Boy” – the epitome of epic.  “The Secret History” – I walked around with it for two days and it never left my side; pure brilliance.  “The Meaning of Night” – an atmospheric historical novel that’s also a cracking revenge story; if you like Wilkie Collins you’ll love this.  “All the light we cannot see” – a very recent book but one that has already made its way onto my all-time favourite reads list.  “Rebecca” – a masterclass in menace.

8. If you could have a single superpower what would you choose?

Invisibility – I want to be able to go to places I’m not supposed to be, and to see and hear things I’m not supposed to see or hear!

9. If you could live in another period of time, when/where would you choose?

I love my history, but I think the best time to be alive is right now; I wouldn’t change that even if I had the choice.

10. Tell me something random about yourself.

I have a fear of eating sandwiches made by other people.  Nothing else, just sandwiches.

Thank you both for the questions, they really got me thinking.  So now here are my 10 questions for some of my fellow bloggers.

1. Which book would you take to a desert island?

2. What’s the most inspiring place you’ve ever visited?

3. If you could live in any novel, which would it be?

4. E-readers or physical books – which do you prefer and why?

5. Where are you at your happiest?

6. Do you have a hidden talent?  If so, what is it?

7. Which modern book do you think people will still be reading in fifty years’ time?

8. Have you ever read a book you didn’t expect to like but ended up loving it?  If so, which one was it?

9. Do you have a favourite animal?

10. What is the one thing about yourself you’d like everyone reading your blog to know?

It’s been pretty hard to find enough blogs with the right number of followers to take part, but my nominations are:

Standing up for Shakespeare

My mind reels through film

Bring my books

Brittany Lee

and anyone else who’d like to join in!

Thank you again to the two lovely bloggers who nominated me 🙂