Books I Read in May

May was a more varied literary month than April, with a couple of fiction books and one non-fiction title.

Bertie Guide to Life and MothersI started off the month’s reading with one of Alexander McCall Smith’s books, Bertie’s Guide to Life and Mothers. McCall Smith is an Edinburgh-based author who is a prolific fiction writer, well known for his No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series set in Botswana.

Bertie’s Guide to Life and Mothers is part of the 44 Scotland Street series, which follows various characters living and working in Edinburgh. At the heart of the series is Bertie, a young boy who is forced to cope with his pretentious mother’s overbearing approach to child rearing. Earlier in the series, she enrols him in a variety of classes, including yoga and Italian lessons, and sends him to psychotherapy.

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Books I Read in April

I started reading several books in April but I didn’t finish any of them. Usually, when I have a compelling book on the go, I look forward to getting the time to read a few chapters in the evening. But my well of reading matter has run dry and I need to stock up on good books.

The first book I started reading last month was The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone by Olivia Laing. I received a free digital copy from the publisher (Canongate Books in the UK) via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

The Lonely City cover

The premise of the book centres around a time in Olivia Laing’s life when she finds herself alone in New York after a bad break-up, having moved from the UK to be with her American boyfriend. Despite being surrounded by millions of people, loneliness in the city can be at its most acute.

“The city reveals itself as a set of cells, a hundred thousand windows, some darkened and some flooded with green or white or golden light. Inside, strangers swim to and fro, attending to the business of their private hours. You can see them, but you can’t reach them, and so this commonplace urban phenomenon, available in any city of the world on any night, conveys to even the most social a tremor of loneliness, its uneasy combination of separation and exposure” (Quote source: Goodreads)

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The Patriots by Sana Krasikov

wp-1491080294065.jpgSana Krasikov’s debut novel, The Patriots, is a compelling account of one woman’s experience in Soviet Russia under Stalin’s regime.

Florence Fein is a young, idealistic woman growing up in 1930s Brooklyn, but the capitalist ‘American Dream’ does not inspire her. With all the fervency of her youthful convictions, Florence believes that America has nothing to offer her. Instead, she emigrates to Russia to pursue her utopian ideals, and also “one particular dark-eyed Soviet man”.

As she sets sail from New York, waving her family goodbye, she is blithely unaware of the magnitude of the events that will follow her decision to emigrate. Reading The Patriots, I was impressed by her grit and tenacity, leaving her family and her native New York behind to journey thousands of miles to an industrial city, Magnitogorsk, in the Ural mountains of Russia. For a moment, as a reader, I became swept up in Florence’s girlish enthusiasm. But the knowledge of things to come soon overshadows any naive optimism you have at the beginning.

“Florence could feel a constriction in her chest…She had been foolish enough to hope that whatever she was walking into would affect no one but herself. Now the truth was catching up with her at the speed of her galloping heartbeat…Now they had summoned her. And they knew everything”


Image: Triumfalnaya Square, Moscow (1934)

Decades later, her son Julian travels to Moscow to find out the truth about his mother when her KGB file is released. For years, he struggled to understand Florence and her refusal to criticize the political regime that destroyed their family. Now, he hopes, the truth will come to light.

The book jumps between years and decades, beginning in 1934 as Florence starts her voyage, then rewinding to 1932, 1934 to 2008, 1940 to 1948… Sometimes I find that changes in chronology disrupt the flow of a narrative, but that isn’t the case with The Patriots. Once Krasikov has set up the back story for each character, the links between the plot lines become clear.

Krasikov’s characters are so vivid that you almost think you are watching events unfold on a movie screen, as one of the reviews praises on the back cover. Although the characters are fictional, the book is based on true events and Florence’s story could be viewed as a representative for one of the many Americans who were trapped in Russia during the Stalinist era, their passports confiscated and unable to leave the country.

The Patriots is a novel which encompasses many themes — identity, family, love, loyalty, self-deception and the dangers of political ideology. It’s a beautifully written epic novel, and it will certainly be one of my stand-out reads of the year.

The Patriots (2017) is published by Granta Books. I received a free copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Books I Read in March

It’s the start of another month and time for another literary round-up of the books I’ve read recently. In March, I read one non-fiction title and three novels. Let’s start with the non-fiction book: a biography of Jane Austen by historian Lucy Worsley.

2017 marks the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death. At just forty-one, she died tragically young. The cause of her death is unknown, but some scholars have suggested Addison’s or Hodgkin’s disease. However, some new research recently came to light — it’s possible that Jane was unintentionally poisoned by arsenic, a popular ingredient in Georgian medicine.

Worsley’s book, Jane Austen at Home, is one of the publications timed to commemorate her death. I’m an Austen fan and I’ve read several well-researched biographies (Jane Austen: A Life by Claire Tomalin is one of the best), so I was already familiar with the facts of Austen’s life. However, Worsley has taken these facts, along with historical context, letters and info from other sources, and woven them into a highly enjoyable book. Continue reading

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!

where-my-heart-used-to-beat

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!

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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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

Books I Read in September

It’s the third day of October already — how did that happen?! In September, I read four books — a varied mix. I enjoyed two of my September reads a lot, but I’d classify the other two as so-so: okay but not great.

Emma by Alexander McCall Smith 

This book is part of the Austen Project: six contemporary authors who are retelling Jane Austen’s novels in modern settings. In 2013, I wrote a blog post with a critical viewpoint about these updated versions: Do Modern Retellings of Classic Novels Actually Work? This post was in response to the first publication of the Austen Project: a rewritten version of Sense and Sensibility by Joanna Trollope. Despite enjoying the novel as a quick, light read, I still have mixed feelings about ‘updating’ classic literature.

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