My May Reading List

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I know from reading the blogs and tweets of my book-loving friends that I’m not the only one struggling to concentrate on reading (or anything much) at the moment.  It’s not that the tempting titles aren’t there, but there’s simply so much chaos, stress and confusion going on in what’s become an almost unrecognisable world that it can’t help but filter its way into everyone’s minds and hearts, whether we’ve been personally touched by the current tragedy or not.  On the days when I do feel inclined to pick up a book, however, they’ve come to my rescue as they always do and taken me to a far more manageable place, if only for a while.  So although May has got off to a bit of a slow start, over the next few weeks I’m going to make a concerted effort to take time away from the news and social media, and just relax with my paperback friends.  If you’re in need of some inspiration yourself, here are my picks for this month.

A Map of the Damage – Sophia Tobin

I’ve been a fan of this author since I read her first book, The Silversmith’s Wife, so I was crazily excited when I saw that her latest was about to be released in paperback.  I started reading it a few days ago and it’s already made me cry, made me angry and got me utterly hooked – so a good start then!

The Makioka Sisters – Junichiro Tanizaki

Another bookseller recommended this to me, calling it “the Japanese Little Women” and my word it’s lived up to the comparison so far!  Told almost entirely from a female perspective, it’s a real cultural eye-opener, shedding light on the expectations, conventions and disappointments of marriage among the more privileged elements of pre-war Japanese society.  I’m loving it so much, at the moment it looks set to be a contender for one of my books of the year so far.

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics – Carlo Rovelli

I read Reality is Not What it Seems last year and was surprised how much I enjoyed it (and also, I’m not going to lie, a little bit chuffed how much I managed to grasp) so decided to give this one a go.  To be fair, any understanding I gleaned from the aforementioned title was entirely down to the author’s skill at conveying complex concepts in an accessible way rather than any innate scientific instinct on my part, so I’m very much hoping he pulls off the same trick with this one.

Collected Ghost Stories – M R James

I’m utterly useless when it comes to ghost stories, horror films or anything remotely spooky, and I usually avoid them like the plague, knowing if I don’t I’ll be sleeping with the light on for at least a week afterwards.  My sister gave me her spare copy of the book this week (with a warning that at least two of the stories are guaranteed to freak me out completely), and I very bravely started tackling it this afternoon.  I have to say, sitting under a tree in the sunshine it didn’t seem that bad, but we’ll have to wait and see how I feel about it when darkness falls…..

What’s on your TBR pile this May?  Anything you’ve started reading that you’re particularly enjoying?  As always, please do share your comments!

 

Six Degrees of Separation – a journey in 6 books!

Something new on This Girl’s Book Room today! The Six Degrees of Separation meme is hosted by Books Are My Favourite and Best and it’s really easy to join in. Each month you get given a book as a starting point, and from there you create a chain of 6 more books, each with a link to the previous one. The connection can be anything you like – it can be related to the book itself, such as a theme or setting, or something more personal, such as another book you read on the same holiday or that was recommended by the same friend. This month was the first time I’ve taken part and honestly, I had so so much fun rifling through the bookshelves to make my book chain! If you fancy having a go, you can leave a link to your 6 Degrees blog post in the comments section over on Kate’s page here, and you can join in on Twitter too using the hashtag #6Degrees. So without further ado, here are my 6 degrees of separation.

This month’s starting book is The Road by Cormac McCarthy. I’ve never read it, so I thought I’d use the fact that it won the Pulitzer Prize to take me to my next title, which is…..

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

This is one of my all time favourite books! Like The Road, it also won the Pullitzer Prize a few years ago, and is set primarily in France during the Second World War. The Paris setting inspired me to go for my next choice, which is….

These Dividing Walls by Fran Cooper

This novel follows the lives of a group of residents in a Paris apartment block; however, beyond the personal stories of love and loss, it also deals with the wider themes of culture and belonging, in particular in relation to the growing anti-immigrant and anti-Islamic feeling festering behind the closed doors of Number 37 and across the city. This notion of culture clash, and of being treated as an outsider in your home country leads me to….

The Immigrant by Manju Kapur

This tells the story of a woman from India who moves to Canada following an arranged marriage. It’s a brilliant, although often quite sad, story of feeling torn between two opposing cultures and identities. I took the book’s theme of moving across the world to start a new life to take me to my next choice….

The Colour by Rose Tremain

This tells the story of a couple who emigrate from England to New Zealand in the hope of making their fortune from the goldrush that gripped the country in the nineteenth century. From here, there was only really one book that I could pick next!

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

This is also set in goldrush New Zealand; I found it a pretty challenging read I have to admit, in terms of its length and also its labyrinth of plots and characters, but it was certainly highly rated, and went on to win the Man Booker Prize. Which brings me neatly to my last book….

The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch

Once I got as far as The Luminaries I knew another Booker prize winner would give me a nice long list of titles to choose from – but which one? In the end, I simply decided to go for one I’d really enjoyed, and this was it.

So there we are – from The Road to The Sea, The Sea in 6 books! Please do comment and let me know if you’ve taken part; it’s really fascinating to see which direction everyone takes and where they end up!

My top 5 reads of 2020

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Back in 2018 I started keeping a log of all the books I read over the course of a year (the old fashioned way, with a notebook and pen, naturally!)  It came about partly out of a desire to count how many books I actually got through in 12 months – not as many, incidentally, as I would have guessed before I started keeping score – but also because when you’re on a continuous reading cycle I find it can be really hard to recall what you were reading even a few weeks earlier, so absorbed do you become in the latest book pile.  With current events playing havoc with perceptions of time (I barely even know what day of the week it is anymore) I suddenly felt the urge to get my notebook out this morning, in the hope that looking back over this year’s reading would drag me back into some kind of meaningful mental timeframe.  Not entirely sure the strategy worked, but what it did make me realise was how many great books I’ve already enjoyed this year; of course, because I only returned to my blog a couple of weeks ago after quite a long time away, that means a whole host of fantastic recommends I haven’t yet shared!  So I thought it would be fun to do a run down of my top 5 reads of 2020 so far, and here they are – in no particular order (that was too hard!)

Chernobyl – Serhii Plokhy

I found this book via quite a surprising recommendation, from someone I would never have imagined enjoying a book on this topic.  I have to admit I’d looked at it previously and assumed (with little reason and completely unfairly it turns out) that it would be quite dry, but following my friend’s enthusiasm decided to give it a go.  And I have to say, it absolutely blew me away.  Its analysis of the tragic event and the politics surrounding it was absolutely forensic in its detail, yet it remained constantly gripping right to the end, when the disaster itself was receding into the past but the political machinations were far from over.  Be warned, it will make you furious, and also incredulous that any state could disregard the lives of its citizens so rashly in order to maintain a political advantage; but I do believe it needs to be read, if only in order to understand what corruption and deceit institutions are capable of.

Invisible Women – Caroline Criado Perez

Another book that will leave you absolutely enraged (I realised while writing this there’s a definite theme emerging!), this time about how women have not only been short-changed by societies across the world, but actively put at risk and in the most extreme cases, effectively killed by assumptions that normality = masculinity.  The book hinges on the idea that since pretty much the dawn of civilisation, a male-dominated society has equated humankind with mankind, leading to a blank space where women’s data should be, with horrendously discriminatory results.  From crash test dummies that are based exclusively on the male physique to pharmaceutical companies that run all-male tests leading to drugs that are less effective – or even harmful – to the female body, the pervasive nature of this absence of women will shock and horrify you.  Read it, then get all your friends of all genders to read it – I honestly believe this is one of the most important messages I’ve come across in any book over recent years.

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead – Olga Tokarczuk

Laced with a merciless dose of pitch-black humour, this novel bares its teeth and goes for the throat of Polish society.  Patriarchal authority figures, blood sports enthusiasts, the institutions of law and order that ostensibly work for the greater good of society while marginalising those who fall outside the “boys’ club” of politics and business – none are safe from this stinging literary attack.  This superb novel has minutely realised characters, and follows a series of macabre events that will leave you caught somewhere between laughter and revulsion; it’s memorable, stylish and completely different.  Apparently it caused an uproar in Poland when it was published, which possibly shows how acutely on-point the satire was….

The Five – Hallie Rubenhold

For decades our ghoulish obsession with Jack the Ripper, in particular the titillating spin that’s been attached repeatedly to his crimes by the accepted mythology around his victims being prostitutes, has completely overshadowed one crucial fact: those he killed were all real people who had a story of their own before they came to be notable in history merely as dead bodies.  In this book, Hallie Rubenhold gives these women back their voices, and in doing so dismantles many of the lurid assumptions that have surrounded them for so long.  In keeping with the theme of my favourite books of 2020, yes, it will make you a little angry – every single one of these women were let down by a society that left no room for a woman to survive and make a life for herself without a man by her side on which to depend.  But it will also make you extremely sad, and yet grateful to the author for putting these victims back into the spotlight as living people, rather than corpses on a street corner.

Austerlitz – W G Sebald

Since I read this back in February I’ve been recommending it to tons of people; it’s one of those novels that’s so unique it sticks in your mind long after the last page.  It’s unusual in that it masquerades as a true story, even to the point where it includes photographs that purport to be of places and people connected to the main characters.  It’s so convincing that while you’re reading part of you starts to wonder if indeed these people are in fact real and this truly is a biography.  That’s not the case, but it is a thoroughly authentic exploration of suffering and loss, and what that does to the psyche over many decades.  The background to Austerlitz’s story is the Nazi’s persecution of the Jews around the time of the Second World War; however, the inevitable fate of his family and the horrific situation from which he managed to escape are only hinted at.  The sadness is somehow more powerful for being so opaque; it’s a truly affecting novel, mighty in its quietude and subtlety.

Which have been your favourite books of 2020 so far?  Do comment and let me know!

 

 

 

 

 

“Into the Water” by Paula Hawkins – review

Thrillers can be challenging books to review as it’s so difficult to talk about them without inadvertently giving away plot spoilers and ruining the suspense of the story.  Be assured though I’ll do my best to give you a meaningful blog post without revealing too much!

I’m one of the ever diminishing few who hasn’t read Paul Hawkins’ astonishingly successful debut novel “The Girl on the Train”, and in a way I’m quite glad about that as it meant I came at this novel with no expectations and could read it without making any comparisons to her previous work.  It’ll be interesting for me to hear, as more and more people read “Into the Water”, whether the prevailing opinion is that it’s a better or worse book than the first.  All I can say is that for the most part I found it a really enjoyable and memorable thriller, even if there were a few elements that didn’t quite convince me.

At the centre of the story is a patch of water known to locals as the Drowning Pool.  On summer days it’s a magnet for children to play and teenagers to congregate, at other times it’s a picturesque spot for solitude and contemplation; but despite its beauty it can never escape the negative associations that have developed over the centuries due to the number of women who have perished in its depths.  Some of the earliest victims were those suspected of witchcraft who were deliberately drowned, and they were followed in turn by other violent deaths – murders, suicides and some cases where the truth of events still remains a mystery.  The latest woman to come to an unfortunate end in the notorious pool is Nel Abbott, single mother to a teenage daughter Lena, and the estranged sister of Jules, who reluctantly returns to their childhood home to sort out Nel’s affairs.  The two haven’t spoken for years following a dramatic falling-out, and Jules’ initial reaction is to resent her sister’s suicide – for that’s what most people seem to believe it was – as a final, spiteful bid to attract attention and drag Jules back to a place she hoped to have left behind for good.  Before long though the question upon which so many mystery stories have hinged over the decades – did she jump or was she pushed? – rears its head and the investigation to uncover the truth begins.

The story hops between the aftermath of Nel’s death and the events that led up to it, and is told through a multitude of voices: members of Nel’s family, the investigating police officers and an extensive cast of local people who were connected to Nel in some way.  At first I wasn’t sure I liked having such a large number of narrators; it takes a while to feel a connection to the characters when their contributions are so fragmented.  As the novel progressed, however, I found the technique began to work really well.  Nel, it transpires, had created a bit of a stir among her tight-knit, somewhat insular rural community with her controversial project on the history of the Drowning Pool, and the short, sharp bursts of narration from the different voices perfectly reflects the frenzy of circulating gossip, speculation and suspicion that follows her death.  It also ensures that the book gallops along at a pretty brisk pace, and I found myself failing miserably to put it down, constantly thinking, “just ONE more chapter”!  I’ve abandoned a few psychological thrillers over the past year because although they were fast-moving and intricately plotted I simply didn’t care what happened to the main characters, but in this case I absolutely did.  That’s not to say they’re all likeable (in fact there are a few who I found hideous) but somehow I was still desperate to find out how their stories ended.

It was the tying up of all the different story strands that I felt let the book down slightly.  I would never have guessed the outcome of the mystery surrounding Nel’s death, and I was pleased to have been taken well and truly by surprise.  The story arc for a couple of the other characters though I didn’t buy.  [Small spoiler alert!]  Following a melodramatic and for me unbelievable event in the later stages of the book, one person suddenly undergoes what appears to be a complete personality transplant, which I felt was a jarring attempt to bring closure to a situation that was far too psychologically complex to ever have been resolved in that way.  I was also left with a few unanswered questions after the final page, although that could be down to my personal preference for neat endings and a deliberate decision by the author to leave some things ambiguous rather than any oversight on her part.  Whatever the novel’s minor flaws, Paula Hawkins certainly knows how to tell a gripping story, and for its compelling narrative, excitement and genuine mystery I’d recommend it wholeheartedly.

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Happy Birthday Will!

It’d be wrong to let the birthday of our nation’s greatest playwright pass by without comment, so here’s my little nod to the great man.  My edition of Shakespeare’s complete works is the oldest book I own, and by far the most precious, and I wanted to share it with you today.

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It looks, feels and smells exactly how you’d wish an old book to look, feel and smell; every physical book evokes some kind of emotional response but to hold this is to feel as if you’re in contact with another era.  I’ve scoured the pages and can find no publication date printed anywhere, which is a bit of a shame as I’d love to know, but it goes back without a doubt to at least the first half of last century as it was given to my maternal grandmother by my great-grandmother on her 21st birthday.  It’s that family connection that gives it a value unlike any other book I own.  The idea of a precious book being passed down through generations of women in my family makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside – I hope one day I’ll be able to pass it on again in turn.

And if you were to envisage the quintessential complete Shakespeare in your head, I’m pretty sure it would look something like this.  From the leather cover to the gilt-edged pages, to the wonderful, magical photographs of bygone actors and actresses in their Shakespearean garb, it’s absolute book-perfection.

Happy birthday Mr. Shakespeare!

Bookish disappointments

“Disappointment” has got to be one of the saddest words in the English language.  If you want to upset me, just tell me you’re disappointed by something; it goes beyond mere sadness as there’s the implication of the delighted anticipation that preceded the blow, which renders the ensuing despondency so much worse.  To feel let down by a book is a particularly hideous experience since more often than not you will have had a pretty long wait for it.  The absolute worst scenario of all though is when an author you’ve previously loved comes up with a book that, well, you just don’t.

I’m currently reading “4321” by Paul Auster and although I’d deliberately avoided any reviews before I started it I’d already heard a number of people say they weren’t particularly keen on it.  As it happens, I’m completely hooked and think it’s the best novel he’s written in ages, but prior to this, he was one of the authors who’d started to disappoint me.  I devoured his early books with the fervour of someone who’s discovered a new religion, but as the years went by and I caught up with his writing so I was reading in tandem with his new releases I found I was increasingly disenchanted, feeling that somehow he was producing Auster-by-numbers, novels lacking the spark and sharpness of their predecessors.  I’m terrible, however, for giving even the least deserving people in my life second (and third and fourth) chances, and I couldn’t bring myself to give up on him entirely, a decision that I’m relieved to say is so far proving to be justified.

So which other authors have disappointed me?  Well, one of the big ones recently was Donna Tartt; “The Secret History” is one of my favourite books of all time and “The Little Friend” was a more than worthy successor, but “The Goldfinch”?  Fragmented, verging on tedious in places and WAY too long, it was for me one of the most crushing literary let-downs ever.  It wouldn’t have been such a soul-destroying experience of course had she not been so outstanding before, but I can only imagine the pressure such a lauded novelist like that must be under, especially when their books have close to a decade between them.  Iain Pears’ “The Dream of Scipio” was another case of the curse of having to follow a masterpiece (in this case “An Instance of the Fingerpost”) although, like the back in favour Mr Auster, he redeemed himself in my eyes with the mind-bending “Stone’s Fall”.  Then there’s Muriel Barbery, whose remarkable novel “The Elegance of the Hedgehog” made an impression on me intellectually and emotionally that I never expected, but whose later novel “The Lives of Elves” proved to be a bemusing and ultimately for me unfinishable quasi-fairytale that bore almost no resemblance to its predecessor.  Hats off to her for doing something totally different, but it wasn’t for me.

The more I look at my bookshelves the more I see little disappointments, most of them not on the level of Goldfinch-gate, but let-downs nonetheless.  So I’m going to call time on this blog post before it descends into a simmering cauldron of negativity – and let’s not forget that, as experience shows, one less than enjoyable book doesn’t condemn an author for ever! – but I’d love to hear what your biggest bookish disappointments were.  Are there any that still sting years later?  Or do you disagree with me and think “The Goldfinch” is Donna Tarrt’s most enjoyable novel?  Either way I’d love to hear your thoughts so do share!

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My bad reading habits!

I’m a terrible reader.  Seriously.  I’m a voracious reader to be sure but I constantly annoy myself with my bad reading habits!  If I could kick even some of these then my literary life would become so much easier…

I get side-tracked very easily!  No matter how great the book is that I’m reading, I can’t resist reaching for the next shiny new thing that catches my eye.  As a result, I usually have four or five books on the go… and thus it takes me an age to finish any of them.

I’m always behind on new publications.  Not a bad reading habit per se, but it can be a bit of a bad one for a blogger.  The trouble is, I’m drawn to older books that I come across by chance as much as I am by the prominent new releases; by the time I’ve got round to reading the next big thing, everyone else has stopped talking about it!

I waste good reading opportunities.  You might think that as I love my books so much I’d be filling every vacant minute of the day with reading.  Unfortunately, as well as being an avid reader I’m also a bit of a daydreamer; whereas most of the bookworms I know will fill every train journey or wait at a bus stop with reading, I’m just as likely to gaze off into the distance and lose myself in my own little world of (generally pointless) thoughts.

I’m terrible at absorbing what I’ve read.  No matter how much I’ve enjoyed a book, if you ask me a week later what the main character was called I couldn’t tell you.  Wait another few weeks and I probably couldn’t even tell you how it ended.  Honestly, I have no idea what’s wrong with me (particularly since I’m one of those people who’ll remember every word of a conversation I’ve had with you a year ago) but it makes it incredibly difficult to discuss books with my friends without sounding as if I’ve been completely underwhelmed by every single thing I’ve read!

What are your bad reading habits?  I can’t be the only one who has them!

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“The Mower” by Philip Larkin

I have a very quick little post for you today.  I’d like to share one of my favourite poems with you all; not to analyse it or pull it to pieces in an attempt to fathom what poetic techniques are employed to make it so good, but just to share the words because they are so powerful and pertinent.  We never know how much time we have, and Larkin’s closing phrase is a plea to which we should all listen.  I have nothing else to say today – this eloquent poem speaks for itself.  Happy reading.

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New book excitement

Over the next few weeks we’re going to be treated to new novels by two giants of American literature: Michael Chabon, whose book “Moonglow” is released in a matter of days, and Paul Auster, whose new work “4 3 2 1” is scheduled for early 2017.  I have a somewhat turbulent relationship with these two writers; both have penned novels that I would unhesitatingly include in my all-time favourite book list and both have, on occasion, produced novels that have left me quite disappointed.  I first read Chabon’s “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay” when I started working as a bookseller back in the early noughties; it’s one of those novels that almost everyone in the book trade loves, and it was pressed upon me by my new colleagues as if reading it was some kind of bookselling rite of passage.  Fortunately I loved it, thus saving myself from becoming a social pariah within the workplace, and although my job has moved on I genuinely love it still.  I also really enjoyed his other novels (even if “Kavalier and Clay” remained my firm favourite) up until his most recent offering, “Telegraph Avenue”.  It’s a terrible feeling when an author you adore produces a book you don’t, and I was heartbroken to find I couldn’t even finish “Telegraph Avenue”, completely unengaged as I was with the characters or the setting.  Still, a new Michael Chabon book is a source of anticipation for me and only slightly tinged with trepidation, as that one book has been the only miss among a succession of hits, and I do love the sound of “Moonglow”.

Paul Auster is a slightly different kettle of fish.  I read a large number of his novels some years back, starting with his earliest works, and found in them some of the most remarkable writing I’ve ever come across.  I’d pick out “Leviathan” and “Moon Palace” as favourites if I had to, but it seemed this man could produce one work of genius after another.  Then at a certain point I felt the magic start to dim.  Was it simply because I had read so many?  I’m not sure, but I couldn’t shake the sensation that the flair and wonder was missing from his most recent novels.  So I took a break, and to be honest I haven’t revisited any of his books for a very long time.  Maybe it was as a result of this hiatus that I found I was incredibly excited when I saw “4 3 2 1” mentioned on Twitter a few days ago.  Let’s face it, my least favourite Auster novels are still a class act compared with many others I’ve read, and I can’t wait to see if this time round I feel the magic again.

Hopefully I’ll be getting my hands on both books as soon as I can, and you can be sure I’ll share my thoughts with you.  See you back on Girl, Reading soon!

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Books about Books: “The Literary Detective”

You know you’re a true bibliophile when your love affair with books extends beyond merely reading them to embrace the whole world that’s built around them.  I love a cracking novel, but I’m also endlessly fascinated by our literary history, the place of the book in our cultural landscape, book art and design…. you name it – if it’s in any way related to reading, I’m going to want to discover more about it.  So it’s for people like me that I’m embarking on a new series of articles for my blog, simply entitled “Books about Books”.  Over the coming months I’ll be highlighting some recommended reads for everyone who delights in bookish facts, trivia and history; first up is “The Literary Detective” by John Sutherland.

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The author originally wrote a series of books in which he attempted to explain some of the more puzzling aspects of classic novels, and this is a compilation of all of them in one volume.  What I love is that fact that the enigmas he explores are ones you may well have missed on reading the novels in question, and it’s only when he draws attention to them that you suddenly start to think about their significance to the story.  More often than not, there’s a real element of fun to his contemplations (“Why is the Monster Yellow” in Frankenstein and “How do the Cratchits cook Scrooge’s turkey” in A Christmas Carol) yet he always manages to blend wit and entertainment with genuinely enlightening vignettes of literary criticism.  In his essay on Dracula entitled “Why isn’t everyone a Vampire” he does some deft and amusing (but undeniably correct) mathematical calculations to prove that, by Bram Stoker’s own theory of vampirism, as outlined by the voice of exposition, Van Helsing, the entire world population should have been turned into a vampire within about 15 years of the first person becoming infected.  Once we’ve laughed at the gaping plot hole and the author’s unsatisfactory attempts to get round it, though, Sutherland leads us on to a really interesting parallel between the Dracula story and the Victorian struggle to understand disease and how epidemics flourish and then die out.  Entertainment, but with a fascinating splash of literary and social theory thrown in.

The author delves into the detail of all the great classic novelists, from Austen to Hardy, Woolf to Dickens; but even if you haven’t read all the books in question it doesn’t matter, as Sutherland is careful to make his essays accessible to everyone.  If you’re at all interested in classic literature, there are hours of fun to be had here, and because the essays are all fairly short you can dip in for ten minutes here and there.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this post – there are definitely more books for book lovers out there that I’d love to share with you, so do come back to Girl, Reading soon.