Books I Read in February

Like last month, I only read two full books in February, although I’m a good portion of the way through two other books which I’m reading at the moment. The pace of my reading has slowed, and I usually only fit a few chapters in during an evening. We’ll see if this ‘two books a month’ average continues through the year. I hope not, as there is so much that I want to read and I’ll fall behind!

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Where My Heart Used to Beat by Sebastian Faulks was my first February read. It’s a slim novel which looks at the past of a retired doctor, Robert Hendricks. The book moves between his present-day life as a retired doctor in the 1980s, his experiences in the trenches of World War II and, later, his work as a psychiatrist in the 1960s.

The plot is hinged on a letter that our protagonist receives from a mysterious stranger, retired neurosurgeon Alexander Pereira, who invites him to a small island on the south coast of France. There, Hendricks confronts aspects of his past, and his father’s suffering in the First World War. The traumas of the twentieth century are never far from the surface. Continue reading

I Want to Spend All My Money on Books

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The Leeds Library, UK. Photo by Michael D. Beckwith. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0

I won’t, of course, seeing as it wouldn’t be very practical. But, you know, a girl can dream! My idea of luxury is having a house with a dedicated reading room: somewhere with wall-to-wall books, a cosy woollen armchair, a dog to curl up by my feet and, best of all, unlimited time to read and think. An old English country estate, with a large house and extensive grounds, would suit my requirements perfectly.

But, alas, I don’t have millions in the bank, and I don’t actually spend much money on books anyway. Most of the books I read are galley copies, also known as advance reader copies (ARC), and I usually get them through publishers or NetGalley.  They are uncorrected proof copies which publishers distribute to generate some publicity and get people talking ahead of the official publication of a book.

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Books I Read in January

I only read two books in January, and I’m a quarter of the way through another.

My first January read was A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles.  It tells the story of a Russian aristocrat, Count Rostov, who is sentenced to house arrest by the Bolsheviks in 1922. But his house arrest happens to be inside Moscow’s finest hotel, Hotel Metropol, as he was already resident there when sentenced.

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A Gentleman in Moscow (hardback). Published September 6th 2016 by Viking

Over the course of 30 years in the hotel, the Count befriends several of the guests — some come and go while others remain part of the novel’s fabric. The concept of the novel is interesting: the hotel remains static, a stage on which characters enter and leave, but outside the world is changing.

The book begins in the 1920s, shortly after the Russian Revolution, and ends in the 1950s, in the midst of Soviet Russia. Although I was vaguely aware of external events (one character is sent to a gulag prison camp, while Rostov’s friend Mishka writes poetry which is censored), as readers, we are sheltered from all this. The hotel’s warmth and charm is an oasis away from the harsh political climate.

‘Warmth and charm’ sums up the whole book really. Beyond a passing mention here and there, Towles doesn’t elaborate on the brutalities of Russia’s history during the novel’s thirty-year span. It is historical fiction, of a kind, but it’s dressed up in finery and the historical details focus more on luxuries (orchestral music, Swiss Breguet timepieces, fine dining) than gritty reality.

“Does a banquet really need an asparagus server?” one of the characters asks. “Does an orchestra need a bassoon?” Rostov replies.

Although it has been given acclaimed reviews in the media, I thought it was just so-so: entertaining but not outstanding. I enjoyed it as an escapist read and it is well-written, but I’m not sure that it merits all the hype it is getting (rave reviews from NPR, The New York Times and The Washington Post, among others). A review I read on Goodreads classified it as ‘a fairy tale for adults’, which I think is very apt. It’s full of whimsy and charm, but lacks real substance. I’d rate it three stars out of five.

My next book in January was Sweet Caress by William Boyd. In this novel, Amory Clay is the central protagonist. Born in 1908, Amory develops an early interest in photography and aspires to make it her profession, at a time when it wasn’t considered an acceptable career for women.

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Sweet Caress (paperback). Published May 17th 2016 by Bloomsbury USA.

Boyd charts Amory’s progress through the early twentieth century as she becomes an intrepid photographer. Her work takes her to pre-war Berlin at first, where she takes secretive photos at an after-hours night club, and later to New York, London and Paris.

She specializes in photojournalism, documenting fascist marches in London, the aftermath of World War II and, later, the conflict in Vietnam. In a stint as a fashion photographer for American Mode, Amory finds that although she is good at it, she is bored by the predictable poses and glossy veneer of fashion photos, preferring instead to shoot photos from a less artificial angle.

A number of small black-and-white photos are dotted throughout the book, with captions that relate to Amory’s photos. They are anonymous and are all photos that Boyd has found in junk shops and yard sales.

Of course, the photos are all representations of fictional characters, but they make the people in the novel seem more vivid and real. Boyd uses one of these found photos (below) as a frontispiece, depicting Amory as a young woman in the 1920s.

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Photo: unknown. Found at a bus stop in Dulwich, London.

The novel is narrated from a first-person perspective, and I really felt that I got to ‘know’ Amory as a character. It’s a mark of an excellent novel when you turn the last page and feel just a little bereft, wishing you could spend more time with its characters.

In the acknowledgements at the end, there is a list of female names: the real-life trailblazing female photographers who inspired Boyd’s depiction of Amory. Sweet Caress left me wanting to research the fascinating lives of these twentieth-century women, most of whom are now unknown.

Currently reading: Where My Heart Used to Beat by Sebastian Faulks.

What did you read in January? It doesn’t just have to be books — if you read a really great article online, share that too!

Reading in translation: getting a global perspective

Gaining insight into other cultures and perspectives is one of the things I most enjoy about reading. And, of course, books can be therapeutic too. Susan Chira’s recent New York Times article, In Trying Times, the Balm of Jane Austen, rings true.

Returning to old favourites and the reassuring stability of the classics can be just what you need when times are tough, so it isn’t surprising that bibliotherapy is growing in popularity. After all, many of us need some sort of escapism when the world seems to be getting more turbulent by the day.

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An Alaskan Escape and an American Dream

 alaska-1Alaska photo courtesy of Alejandro Gonzalez

It’s been a while since I talked about books here on the blog. But I always have a book on the go — it’s my way to wind down after a busy day.

My current read is Heroes of the Frontier by Dave Eggers. I was introduced to his writing last year by a colleague who loaned me The Circle, Eggers’ dystopian fiction book about a futuristic tech company which starts to infiltrate the lives of its employees to a disturbing degree. For a full review, check out my post: Books I Read in September.

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Mystery and thrills in Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s Barcelona

Continuing with the Spanish theme of the last three posts on my blog, The Shadow of the Wind is a novel set in mid-twentieth century Barcelona. In the middle of the old city of Barcelona is a ‘Cemetery of Forgotten Books’, a library with winding passages and corridors so hard to find again that you must leave a trail as though journeying into the heart of the Minotaur’s den.

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When Daniel is ten years old, his father takes him to choose one book from this mysterious labyrinth of a library. He picks an obscure title, La Sombra del Viento (The Shadow of the Wind) by Julián Carax. As Daniel grows up, he tries to find more titles by Carax, but he cannot find a single one. There are reports of a strange man who calls himself Lain Coubert — the name of the devil in Carax’s novel — who is going around the city asking for Carax’s books to burn.

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What Does Your Bookshelf Say About You?

If you didn’t know me, you could tell a lot about me by looking at the bookshelf in my room. I read lots of books, averaging one every 10 days or so, and many of the ones I’ve read aren’t on my bookshelf. This particular bookshelf is a space for books that I want to keep and books that have childhood memories attached to them.

Looking at my bookshelf, you’d be able to tell that I grew up in the Harry Potter generation. Much of my childhood and early teen years were spent eagerly awaiting the publication of the next installment in the series. My copies of those seven great books have been much-read and are showing signs of wear, with some covers a little creased.

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Trespassing Across America

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Something that fascinates me about America is the fact that there is more land without people than there is with people. It’s easy to get bogged down in the mire of the ever-raging political battles and America’s position on the global stage, but the true spirit of the U.S. lies in its uninhabited wild spaces.

But despite being wild and open, much of the privately-owned land is not open to hikers. When Ken Ilgunas set out on a 1700-mile walk from Alberta to Texas in 2012, following the proposed route of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, most of his journey took him across “No Trespassing” land.

As Ilgunas explains, walking across wild America is difficult unless you’re either in a national park or on a trail approved by the government — “In America, the so-called freest country on earth, no one really has the right to roam” (Ilgunas, 2016).

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The Longest Night – a novel by Andria Williams

The Longest Night coverBased on the only fatal nuclear accident to happen in the United States, The Longest Night is an engrossing novel set in the late 1950s in a remote military town in Idaho. It follows a young couple, Paul and Natalie (Nat for short), as they adjust to their new life in the town. Paul is part of the Army Specialist team overseeing the CR-1, one of the first nuclear reactors in the USA. At first, their lives are full of promise. They’re chasing the American Dream and life is sweet.

But Nat struggles with the loneliness of being in the house all day, every day, in a small town miles from anywhere. She looks after their two daughters, Sam and Liddie, and she appreciates that she is fortunate to have the “exhausting luxury” of staying at home with them. But she is a free-spirited character — after growing up in California with an outdoorsy lifestyle which matches her summery nature, it’s hard for her to fit into the expectations of small-town Idaho. She isn’t readily accepted among the coiffured army wives on the base and she finds it hard to relate to them, with their outwardly perfect lives and spotless houses. Continue reading

The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend – Q&A with author Katarina Bivald

The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend blog tour, plus author interview!

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The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend is Katarina Bivald’s debut novel. First published in Swedish in 2013, it is now available in an English translation. Set in a small town in Iowa, it follows the story of Sara: a book-loving woman in her twenties who is invited to travel from Sweden to Broken Wheel by her elderly pen-pal, Amy. It’s a big adventure for Sara, who has never ventured outside Sweden except in the many books she reads.

But when she arrives in Broken Wheel, she discovers that Amy has recently passed away. In fact, she arrives almost smack-bang in the middle of Amy’s funeral. Despite this unexpected twist, Amy’s relatives insist that Sara stays in her house as planned; Amy would have wanted to show hospitality. So Sara stays in Broken Wheel, getting to know the town’s small population and meeting the people she heard about in Amy’s letters. And she quickly realizes that this decrepit little town, struggling to get by, is in dire need of a bookstore…

Katarina Bivald tells us more about the book, her writing process and her love of reading.

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