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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“Solitude is a human presumption”: Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer

“Solitude is a human presumption. Every quiet step is thunder to beetle life underfoot”

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Prodigal Summer is the second novel by Barbara Kingsolver that I have read. She is arguably most well-known for her bestseller, The Poisonwood Bible (published in 1998), but I became acquainted with her writing when I read and enjoyed Flight Behaviour (2012) last year. In many aspects, Prodigal Summer (2012) is similar to Flight Behaviour: both novels are set in rural locations in the South (Virginia and Tennessee, respectively), nature and ecological themes are key points, and female protagonists with grit and independence are at the forefront of these novels.

Three stories form the plot of Prodigal Summer. There is the reclusive “hillbilly accent[ed]” biologist, Deanna Wolfe, who lives in a mountain cabin and works as a forest ranger, maintaining the trails and protecting the wildlife. A few miles below the mountain, Lusa Maluf Landowksi has married into an insular family that does not readily accept her. Meanwhile, a couple more miles down the road, two elderly neighbours, Garnett Walker and Nannie Rawley, live in bordering properties and bicker about God and farming on an almost daily basis, but perhaps they have more in common than they can see.

Kingsolver’s background as a biologist is clear in her writing, as she brings environmental themes into her stories and writes about them with eloquence and insight. I enjoy her evocative descriptions of Southern Appalachia and she writes about nature in a way that I find very soothing. The human stories are well-drawn too. I don’t always enjoy stories with multiple main characters and story-lines, but Kingsolver executes this literary technique with smooth transitions. The chapters alternate between “Predators” (Deanna’s story), “Moth Love” (Lusa) and “Old Chestnuts” (Garnett and Nannie): the stories are different but the characters are living out their lives against the same backdrop and the location is as much a part of the novel as the human characters.

Have you read any novels by Barbara Kingsolver? Do you like the blend of ecological and human themes which seems to be characteristic of her writing?

Mateship With Birds by Carrie Tiffany

This review of Mateship With Birds is a guest post from Dina Ross who blogs at the wonderful books blog, Books Now! Dina also presents Pageturners, a monthly radio show on 3mbs, 103.5 FM and at http://www.3mbs.org.au

Mateship with Birds

Let me begin by confessing that I am a city girl. The countryside for me is an alien place. Cows and lambs and green pastures may calm many a savage breast, but they have the opposite effect on me. As writer Susan Cheever noticed – memorably – the country is uncomfortably noisy. To which I would add: and you can’t get a decent cup of coffee.

But I digress (you’re also welcome to take issue with me). Australian writer Carrie Tiffany’s Mateship With Birds won both the Stella Prize for fiction and the NSW Premier’s Award this year. It was also hotly tipped to win the prestigious Miles Franklin Award, although this was awarded in June to Michelle de Kretser for Questions of Travel.

Tiffany’s first book, Everyman’s Guide to Scientific Living, as well her latest novel, both have rural settings and they’re populated by decent, ordinary folk, who run their farms with pride and live their lives modestly and without fuss. They face their troubles as best they can, keep calm and carry on.

Set in the 1950s, the novel’s hero, a gentle farmer called Harry, quietly sees to his farm and frequently pops over to visit single mum Betty and her two children Michael and Hazel next door. Their platonic friendship goes on for years. It’s only when Michael enters adolescence that Harry feels that he should give the boy some instruction on the affairs of the heart.

Harry’s reflections on love and sex – as a farmer, his allusions and metaphors center very amusingly on the agricultural – are juxtaposed with his observations of a kookaburra family who nest on his property. In his diary he notes the passing seasons and their effect on the birds that squabble, starve, feast and raise their young. The lives of the kookaburras, with all their violence and vibrancy, are in sharp contrast to Harry and Betty’s staid, almost monastic existence. Will the coming of spring awaken them?

There is much to admire about this book. Tiffany’s style is honest and direct. She’s not a fan of purple prose. Her dialogue is robust and humorous, her descriptions of country life energetic and sizzling with life. What distinguishes her narrative is the obvious knowledge of her subject that seeps through the pages. Here is someone with complete understanding of the land and its people.

I question, however, why Harry’s diary is laid out like a prose poem. He may be a poet who doesn’t know it, but it felt to me too self-conscious a literary device. Similarly, I don’t believe any 12 year-old schoolgirl anywhere in the world, even in the 1950s, would use the word “flaunt” in a school essay. But these are quibbles. Mateship With Birds is a fine book and deserves to be read. And there is a great deal of homespun wisdom in its pages.

Mateship With Birds is published by Picador, and is sold online for $19.99

Books I have recently read

The books which I have read recently are linked by their settings: all three of them are set, either wholly or partly, in the past. From North Carolina during the First World War to Philadelphia in the 1940s and Kentucky in the 1930s, these books cross many different times and places.

The Engagements by J. Courtney Sullivan (click on the author’s name to go to their website).

The Engagements

The Engagements

The Engagements is an absorbing novel which spans a century and delves into the lives of five diverse characters who are connected by a common element: love and marriage. For a full review, click here: The last book I read.

Calling Me Home by Julie Kibler

This is a stunning debut novel from Julie Kibler. It alternates between racially segregated Kentucky in the 1930s and Kentucky in the present day. Isabelle is a young white girl who falls in love with a black man, the son of the family’s housekeeper. Inspired by true events, Calling Me Home is an enthralling, moving novel.

The Cove by Ron Rash

The Cove

The Cove

Ron Rash is an excellent storyteller, weaving together a gripping yarn. One of his other novels, Serena, is on my current list of books I want to read, before the movie adaptation, starring Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper, is released this fall.

The Cove is the story of an impoverished brother and sister, Hank and Laurel Shelton, who live in a cabin near the shadows of a cove in the Appalachian mountains. They have been struck by misfortune in the past and rejected by their neighbours who believe that the cove is cursed. When Laurel finds a stranger in the forest one day, a stranger who cannot talk, their lives begin to change irrevocably. The Cove is a compelling novel with a shocking twist at the end.

The last book I read

Daily Prompt: Bookworm

Tell us about the last book you read (Why did you choose it? Would you recommend it?). To go further, write a post based on its subject matter

A page from The Engagements

A page from The Engagements

The last book I read was The Engagements by J. Courtney Sullivan. The Engagements, as you have probably already guessed, is a novel which focuses on marriage. Five separate characters – Frances, Evelyn, Delphine, Kate and James – tell the story of relationships and marriages in several different decades of the twenty and twenty-first centuries. Many authors, especially those who particularly appeal to a female audience, take a similar approach in terms of multiple characters with separate storylines and sometimes when I read novels in that style, I find that the characters start to merge and become rather ‘samey’. However, The Engagements is a highly engrossing read and J. Courtney Sullivan weaves a fascinating subject into the fabric of her novel: the way in which diamonds have become an essential ingredient in the western world’s view of an ideal engagement and marriage.

One of the characters in the novel, Frances Gerety, is based on the real-life Frances Gerety who, working as young copywriter for De Beers in the late 1940s, coined the world-famous slogan, “A Diamond is Forever”. During the time of the Great Depression, diamonds weren’t popular. In fact, as J. Courtney Sullivan writes in this New York Times article, How Americans Learned to Love Diamonds, most Americans viewed diamonds as an extravagance which only the richest people could afford. It is quite astonishing to realize the enormous power that marketing has over us and the fact that it was advertising which entrenched the diamond engagement ring in our society. The analysis of this enthralling topic, along with engaging (no pun intended!) characters, has resulted in this readable and very absorbing novel.