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.

a-gentleman-in-moscow-amor-towles

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.

sweet-caress-cover-bloomsbury-usa

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.

amory-clay-photo

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!

Book review: Into the Beautiful North

There are almost no men in the small Mexican town of Tres Camerones. They have all left to pursue dreams of wealth and a better life in the U.S.: the “beautiful north” of the title. But when the bandidos move into town, the women of Tres Camerones realize something must be done and so nineteen year old waitress Nayeli, inspired by a screening of The Magnificent Seven, sets off with three friends on a journey to el norte to bring seven Mexican men back to Tres Camerones. Interwoven with this tale is Nayeli’s personal story: her father was one of the men who left his family in order to find work in ‘Los Yunaites’ and she is determined to find him, basing her search on a treasured post-card he sent her from Kankakee, Illinois.

Luis Alberto Urrea brings Tres Camerones to life with his prose: the Mexican sun, the dust swirling from the wind and the colorful food. Into the Beautiful North is a skilfully written novel, blending social issues such as immigration and undocumented migrant workers with a mix of vibrant characters, humor and suspense. Whatever you think about illegal immigration, the novel gives a different and much more humanizing perspective than the harsh views we often hear. It is a thought-provoking, moving novel which is well worth your time.

Into the Beautiful North at www.luisurrea.com

Silver Linings Playbook: a movie review

Silver Linings Playbook movie poster -- all rights remain with the originator(s)

Silver Linings Playbook movie poster — all intellectual property rights remain with the originator(s)

A few nights ago, I headed off to see Silver Linings Playbook (2012), based on the début novel (2008) by Matthew Quick. For the IMDb page for the movie, click here. I watched the trailer and a few publicity clips on YouTube a few weeks ago and it caught my interest, specifically because of the cast. Bradley Cooper plays Pat Solitano, a former teacher who lost his job after problems caused by undiagnosed bipolar disorder. At the beginning of the movie, we see him move back in with his parents after leaving a psychiatric hospital in Baltimore. The move back home does not come without its problems as Pat attempts to rebuild his life and return to his wife, who has cut off their relationship. The complications increase when he meets young widow, Tiffany Maxwell, played by Jennifer Lawrence, at a friend’s dinner party.

Silver Linings Playbook is punctuated with sharp outbursts and flare-ups between characters; the sudden ups and downs of the drama reflect Pat’s bipolar swings. Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence proficiently portray their characters with performances that keep viewers gripped. I had a few doubts about whether Lawrence would be too young to succeed in a competent performance opposite the much older Cooper (she was twenty-one when the movie was filmed and he was more than a decade older) but my doubt dissolved when I watched it. Both actors deliver performances which are believable and emotional to watch.

The IMDb keywords for the genre of the film are “comedy”, “drama” and “romance”. Although it is true that it contains all of these to a certain extent, I am very hesitant to label it as a rom-com, as I have seen many other reviews describe. It is a drama containing many complexities and “rom-com” is too sappy a word to describe it. There are a few laughs in between the bittersweet moments but if you are looking for a movie which is a 100% fluffy feel-good film (as I would personally expect a rom-com to be), this is not it.

It is sensitively directed by David O. Russell and does not exploit the subject matter of bipolar disorder and mental health issues. Although the ending was perhaps not as realistic as I would have liked, that did not detract one bit from my opinion or enjoyment. If you get a chance to see it, I highly recommend it.

Once Upon a River by Bonnie Jo Campbell: a review

My copy of Once Upon a River

A couple of weeks ago, I read a book called Once Upon a River by Bonnie Jo Campbell. At first glance, Once Upon a River has an old-fashioned, archaic kind of feel to it. The ‘once upon a…’ title reminds me of legends and fairy tales and the cover picture makes me think of settlers in the old American West: I came to this book expecting a Wild West type of story. When I skimmed the synopsis on Amazon, I thought it was going to be a tale set in the wilderness in the nineteenth century. It was only when I started reading the book itself that I realized it is in fact set in the late twentieth century. Nevertheless, the lifestyle of the teenage protagonist, Margaret Louise Crane, who hunts animals and gathers plant in order to eat, and the settings of rural southern Michigan lend the book a much older feeling.

When Margo’s father is killed, a death “in which she [Margo] is complicit”, she sets off on a journey down the Stark River, a fictional tributary of the Kalamazoo, in an attempt to find the mother who abandoned her. Her journey on the river becomes “one that leads her beyond self-preservation and to the decision of what price she is willing to pay for her choices” (quotes from the back cover of Once Upon a River).

Part of the blurb on Amazon for the book says it will appeal to fans of The Hunger Games and that caught my attention. But Once Upon a River is not just for Hunger Games fans and Once Upon a River is mostly very different than the tales of Katniss Everdeen. The most obvious difference is the fact that The Hunger Games is a science-fiction story which takes place in a futuristic dystopian North America whereas Once Upon a River is not. However, the key similarity between THG and Once Upon a River, if the two must be compared, is the nature of the principal female character in each book. Katniss and Margaret (aka Margo, as she is called in most of the book) are both strong, independent girls in their mid to late teens. Both of them hunt, fish and gather in order to live and they each have a gutsy, gritty streak in their character that serves to carry them through hard times.

I did not want to reach the end of this book. Although I think Campbell concluded the book in a satisfactory way for the reader, I still wanted the last few chapters to be a bit thicker! I was absolutely gripped and read it cover-to-cover in little more than 24 hours. Campbell’s style is eloquent, especially in terms of the descriptions of her native Michigan, and it is absolutely compelling. Before I read this novel, I had not heard of the author but I will certainly be seeking out more of her work in the near future. A link to her website is below:

Bonnie Jo Campbell’s website

The author, Bonnie Jo Campbell — photo © John Campbell

Book review: The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker

The Age of Miracles front cover — no copyright infringement intended. All rights remain with their respective owners

Image source: The Age of Miracles at Amazon.com

I was lucky to get an advanced review copy of The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker and I just finished reading it. It is a striking, original début novel and it is definitely one to watch out for when it arrives in book stores next month on June 26.

I’ll give you a brief summary of the plot before I share my thoughts on this novel. The Age of Miracles is set in California….wonderful, sunny Southern California, in a quiet everyday neighborhood. But then the Slowing begins. The earth begins slowing down, meaning that the days and nights grow longer and longer until our human concept of 24 hours in a day no longer has any relevance. Julia, the protagonist, is eleven years old when this takes place but the story is narrated by Julia when she is older and looking back on the events of “the slowing”. The author, Karen Thompson Walker, thoughtfully describes the changes which take place when “the slowing” happens: changes in gravity and Circadian rhythms, the death of birds and crops. Catastrophes are woven with the story of a young girl beginning adolescence, creating a multilayered story of people going about their daily lives in a setting which feels very unreal.

This is a novel which is all about time and its power over us. Even though the government attempts to enforce the 24 hour clock, nature is ever-powerful. As this article from the website of the British newspaper, The Guardian points out, The Age of Miracles is “eerily prescient” because something like this could actually happen. When the massive earthquake struck Japan last year, it moved our planet on its axis, causing our day to shorten “by a fraction of a second”. The Age of Miracles has a quietly apocalyptic feel to it: there are no dramatic explosions, no zombies parading the streets, no extraterrestrial beings conquering the Earth. And it is this fact that makes it so believable; it’s not your typical sci-fi novel.

However, although the novel is well-written and the concept is engaging, I am disappointed by what I think is a weak ending. The book leads the reader on to wonder what will happen but then, all of a sudden, you arrive at an anti-climactic and forgettable ending. The ending is my main issue with the novel. I tend to avoid giving stars or points in my reviews but if I had to rate this on a scale of 1 – 10 I would probably give it a 5 or a 6: I enjoyed reading it and it gripped me but the ending was unsatisfying. Don’t let that dissuade you from reading it though; despite the fact that my enjoyment was somewhat negated by the ending, The Age of Miracles is a thought-provoking read and Karen Thompson Walker is a talent to watch out for. For more info and to read an extract from the book, visit the website at theageofmiraclesbook.com.

Thoughts on reading The Hunger Games

The day before yesterday, I read the last page of Mockingjay, which is the third and final book in The Hunger Games trilogy. Two weeks ago I barely had any idea about what The Hunger Games was about, other than that it seemed to be getting a lot of hype around an upcoming movie adaptation and a lot of people were calling it the next Twilight.

Well, I can tell you that The Hunger Games most definitely is not the next Twilight. It’s so much better than that. Yes, I occasionally have a guilty foray into Twilight (okay, so I’ve read all the books and seen all the movies) but I accept it for what it is: an easy-to-read series without much substance at all. And the movies are complete chick flicks.

The Hunger Games, on the other hand, is well written and compelling. I couldn’t stop reading. If, like me two weeks ago, you have no idea what it’s about I’ll try to give a brief summary of the central plot. But you really do have to read it yourself because there’s no chance that I can summarize such an engaging, polished and shockingly vivid series in about 100 words. But I’ll try to give you a taste of what it’s all about.

Picture North America, now called Panem. In an unspecified time in the future, after the destruction of North America as we know it, Panem is segregated into twelve districts which are all overseen by one threatening and sinister mega-government, the Capitol. In the past, the districts attempted and failed to overthrow the government. As punishment for this sin, the Capitol initiated the televised reality show, the Hunger Games. Each year, twenty-four competitors (one male and one female from each of the twelve districts) are placed into a vast outdoor arena and, in Roman gladiator style, have to fight until only one remains.

“The twenty-four tributes will be imprisoned in a vast outdoor arena that could hold anything from a burning desert to a frozen wasteland”, quote from The Hunger Games, copyright Suzanne Collins

The book draws on Roman and Greek mythology to create lucid details and imagery. The series is narrated in the first-person by Katniss Everdeen, a sixteen-year-old resident from District 12, who volunteers to take the place of her beloved sister, Primrose, in the Games when Prim’s name is picked.

It is difficult to describe how addictive and brilliant these books are (I read the whole series in approx. one week!) but they are not just another ‘Twilight’. They deal with some pretty deep themes — family, love, friendship, sacrifice, as well as the symbolism of the totalitarian government and a dystopian reality. There are similarities to George Orwell’s 1984 and there is a considerable amount of political allegory as well as some stunning imagery in the books. I even found myself crying at one very moving point. The author, Suzanne Collins, used to be a scriptwriter so she has a real way with words and a way to make things come alive in your imagination.

Although The Hunger Games is being marketed at young teens, I think that younger readers won’t get the symbolism. I am also concerned that the upcoming movie adaptation is going to be watered down for young viewers, missing out crucial parts of the book and focusing on a partly made-up love triangle between Katniss, Peeta and Gale, who are three of the main characters. Unfortunately, there is already a huge amount of comparisons between The Hunger Games and Twilight but don’t let that scare you away from it!

And please read the books before you go see the movie because I expect the movie makers will try to cater for a young audience of teen girls. I envision a Twilight-esque ‘Team Peeta’ versus ‘Team Gale’ showdown and I emphatically do not want that to happen! It doesn’t happen in the books and it shouldn’t happen on-screen but I fear it will. Yes, there is a love story in the series but it is by no means the central plot, unlike in the Twilight series.

The Hunger Games series is subtly and beautifully written. I didn’t expect that I would like it when I first started reading it as it’s not my usual type of literature but I was amazed by how blown away I was by the series. It’s been a long time since I read anything so thought-provoking, so tender in parts and yet so brutal at the same time.

A cook book review and a recipe too!

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall wants us all to eat more vegetables. “Who the heck is Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall?” you might be thinking, after reading that sentence.
The answer: he is a British celebrity chef and, according to Wikipedia, a “‘real food’ campaigner”. His latest cook book, River Cottage Veg Every Day!, is packed full with recipes which illustrate his ‘real food’ principles.

That phrase amuses me. Sure, I know what it means but it just sounds funny. ‘Real food’, as opposed to what? Fake food?

My copy of 'River Cottage Veg Every Day!'

Anyways, getting back on topic: Fearnley-Whittingstall is not trying to preach or to convert everyone to vegetarianism but he believes that “We need to eat more vegetables and less flesh, because vegetables are the foods that do us the most good, and our planet the least harm” (from the Foreword to River Cottage Every Day, text 2011 copyright Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall).

I was given a copy of River Cottage Veg Every Day for Christmas and it is a great book with about 400 pages of delicious recipes. Fearnley-Whittingstall’s style is simple: no fancy recipes which take hours to prepare, no expensive and exotic ingredients which only city-dwellers can find in specialty food shops…
The recipes are all vegetarian but almost all of them can be side dishes to meat or fish. There is also plenty of scope to create entirely vegetarian meals. I like the way River Cottage Veg Every Day is presented: there are several different chapters which range from “Comfort food & feasts” to “Hefty soups” and “Mezze & tapas”. The photography is wonderful. Every page has a color photo of the end results of each recipe.

The following recipe is from the Store-cupboard Suppers chapter of River Cottage Veg Every Day!:

Tomato, thyme and goat’s cheese tart

Serves 4 – 6
A little sunflower oil
½ teaspoon fine cornmeal or polenta (optional)
375g all-butter, ready-made puff pastry
Beaten egg, for brushing
About 350g tomatoes
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
A little extra virgin olive or rapeseed oil
100g rinded goat’s cheese
A handful of thyme sprigs, leaves only
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 190C/Gas Mark 5. Lightly oil a baking sheet and scatter over a little fine cornmeal or polenta, if you have some – this helps to keep the pastry really crisp.
Roll out the pastry fairly thinly and trim to a rectangle about 30 x 25cm. Put it on the baking sheet. Cut a 1cm strip from each edge. Brush these strips with a little beaten egg, then stick on to the edges of the rectangle, to form a slightly raised border. Brush the edges with a little more egg.
Thinly slice the tomatoes across into 2 – 3mm slices; discard the stalky top and skinny bottom slices. Scatter the garlic over the pastry, then arrange the sliced tomatoes on top, overlapping them only slightly. Season with salt and pepper and trickle with a little oil. Bake for about 15 minutes, until the tomatoes are tender and lightly browned.
Take the tart out of the oven, scatter over the cheese and thyme, add another twist of pepper and a trickle of oil, and return to the oven. Bake for another 10 minutes or so, until the cheese is melty and bubbly and the pastry golden brown. You can serve this hot, but I think it’s better half an hour or so after it comes out of the oven, with a green salad.

Recipe text © 2011 by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. No copyright infringement intended.

This is a fantastic cook book with a lot of simple, delicious and nutritious recipes. If I had to summarize it in one word: Yummy!

What books have you most enjoyed in 2011?

We are nearing the end of 2011 and so it’s time for all the usual ‘best (fill in the blank) of 2011’ lists. The best movies, best books, the coolest gadgets, the most outrageous celebrity news etc. You get the idea!

So I thought I would join the party and share the books which I have enjoyed reading most in 2011.

Taking the #1 place is The Borrower by Rebecca Makkai. I found this wonderful début novel by chance and it is a fantastic read. It’s set in a small town in Missouri and is about a children’s librarian, Lucy. When one of her frequent library visitors, 10-year-old Ian, runs away from his home (and his overbearing parents) and hides in the library, “Lucy allows herself to be hijacked by Ian. The odd pair embarks on a crazy road trip from Missouri to Vermont, with ferrets, an inconvenient boyfriend, and upsetting family history thrown in their path” (quote from back cover blurb). It’s one of those books where you have to allow your imagination to step in and take over as the author uses a fair amount of artistic license but it is an endearingly quirky story. I highly recommend it.

#2: The Help by Kathryn Stockett. I thought that this was a 2011 release and I was surprised to learn that it was actually published in 2009. There is a lot of hype surrounding the book at the moment but I guess that’s partly fueled by the recent movie adaptation. I am currently half-way through my first read of The Help and it is so well-written. If you haven’t read it yet, you should!

#3: The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe. This novel is set in New York City during the 1950s, following the stories of four young women who work at a publishing company. Although it was written in the 1950s, it still feels very relevant today and is an excellent read.

If you’ve read anything great this year, please let me know about it by leaving a comment on this post. Suggestions for my (ever-growing!) list of books to read are always appreciated.

“I’m just a summer girl”: Country Strong movie review

I just watched the movie, Country Strong, and I feel let-down by it. Some movies I watch leave me with varying emotions but the only lingering trace of Country Strong is the extremely catchy tune, Summer Girl, which Leighton Meester’s character sings in the movie.

I am a fan of country music and so I settled down to watch Country Strong, expecting a plot-driven movie with some pleasant interludes of country tunes. I got the catchy music scenes; in fact, these took up a large part of the movie. But the plot was sorely lacking.

Country Strong focuses on a country music star, Kelly Canter (Gywneth Paltrow), who has just gotten out of rehab, as well as an up-and-coming country music singer, Chiles Stanton (played by Leighton Meester of Gossip Girl fame).  A few romantic entanglements are thrown into the mix by the arrival of ambitious song-writer, Beau ( Garrett Hedlund). Kelly’s husband/career manager, James (Tim McGraw), completes the character line-up.

However, the characters failed to successfully hook me into the story. I can’t fault the acting; Paltrow, Meester, Hedlund and McGraw all performed well and the movie looks and sounds excellent. But I wasn’t left feeling satisfied at the end and my verdict is simply “meh”. Country Strong is not a bad movie but it is not a great one either because, in my opinion, it needs something extra. Maybe it was the lack of suspense  which meant that my attention wandered at times. Overall, I think the screenplay was too muddled and it would have been better if we had more focus on character tensions and less of the syrupy clichés. It just didn’t convince me.

My verdict: 5.5/10.

Videos sourced from YouTube.