Monthly Archives: March 2013

Book Review: The Cone-Gatherers by Robin Jenkins

TheConeGatherers_GQ_02Jul12_b_262x393

The Cone-Gatherers by Robin Jenkins is a book that definitely takes its reader by surprise. I didn’t know much about it I’ll admit, other than mention of it years ago in English classes in school. I can see why this would work excellently as a literature class text – so much so that I almost think the best way to discuss this book is thematically; innocence, humanity, good and evil. Whichever way you talk about it there is much to discuss.

The story of The Cone-Gatherers begins as two brothers are working on Lady Runcie’s estate during the Second World War, collecting cones to counteract seed shortages arising from the War. Calum and Neil feel unwelcome on the estate, watched over by the groundskeeper, Duror, who seems to develop an unhealthy obsession with them, seeing Calum as some malignant presence due to his disability.

The War is always lingering in the background of everyone’s thoughts – Neil feeling guilty that he is not fighting; Lady Runcie’s brother away fighting in the War; Duror resenting that he was turned down for service; and the conscientious objectors working in the town who are shunned by the locals.

I loved Roderick, the little boy on the estate. He is so innocent and often contradicts his mother when he senses that she is being unjust or inconsistent. His mother describes him as ‘too quixotic for words’ when he suggests that the Calum and Neil are more important than dogs and should be allowed to ride back to the estate in the family car. Lady Runcie Campbell has been taught throughout her life to maintain ‘the correct degree of condescension’ and I think this is why she finds Roderick’s sense of justice so unsettling as it is improper to feel pity for people that she considers to be of a lower social status than she.

Roderick also understands that Duror is unfairly prejudiced against the cone gatherers and remarks upon it but Duror belittles the child’s perceptiveness and ‘smiled at the rawness of the boy who still saw evil as dwelling only in certain men and women, and not as a presence like air, infecting everyone’. The notion of good and evil is present throughout the novel and I feel like my review of the book just can’t do all of the themes justice. The ending of the book is like a blow to the chest, the action rising into a crescendo that leaves you certain that things could never end well and leaves you wondering what this means for humanity.

I found it to be reminiscent of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, a comparison which a google search reveals as unsurprisingly frequent. The themes of innocence and how the innocent are often made to pay for the mistakes and ignorance of others run through both, and I would claim that one novel is just as powerful as the other. A nice pair of books to read together, I think!

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Book Review: The Search by Geoff Dyer

The Search

I picked this book up in my work as I really loved Paris Trance by Geoff Dyer which I read late last year. This is more of a novella than a novel at 164 pages so it could be read in one sitting. I read it very quickly, it’s one of those books that you just get sucked into.

The book felt very cinematic to me and probably recalled films more so than other books. The beginning feels a little like Chinatown, that film noir feel where a private detective is led into hunting someone down without really knowing what he has let himself in for. There were also scenes which recalled Inception for me, when Walker is wandering through towns and settings that feel altered yet familiar.

The Search begins when Walker meets a woman called Rachel at a party who later appears at his door asking if he can help track down her husband Malory (from whom she is separated) and get him to sign a few legal documents. Walker accepts the challenge and this sets off a trip across America, following vague clues and instincts as he tries to track him down.

There were several things that I loved about this book, but I think the main one was the exploration of photography. Walker starts his search in Malory’s apartment and comes across a photograph entite ‘Unknown Self Portrait’ and wonders ‘at the face of this strange ghost, captivated by the closed logic of the picture’. He passes through a train station and with time to kill ends up in a photobooth, a ‘machine [that] didn’t care; it recorded but didn’t notice’.

In one of the cities he passes through, every single person is frozen in time and the clock stays frozen at 4.09 – this captured the frozen moments in photos – that ‘Every action was poised on the brink of a precipice any moment or action brought you to the edge of infinity.’

There is a wonderful episode towards the end where he meets an artist who is embarking on a project to capture the life of a city by looking at photos taken in the city in the course of one day by residents and tourists. Together he and Waker try to track the progress of the day by following Malory as he goes in and out of the pictures and it is a lovely exploration of photography and how it captures memories. I often wonder when I’m wandering around Edinburgh at just how many people’s photographs I am in as I am constantly having to duck and dodge and hang back while tourists snap the city. How many mantelpieces or Facebook and Instagram pages have I appeared on unknowingly? It’s quite an unnerving thing to think about.

The narrative is always moving, geographically and thematically and photography and film are always central to the search. I even kept seeing the word ‘film’ in there, at times related photography and at others as an oily substance that covers waste in a city Walker passes through. Many of the towns and cities Walker visited felt like ghost towns, some of them were empty and seemed to me like endless film sets, each one different, built for a purpose but obsolete now that they were no longer needed.

Some of the novella is pretty surreal and you just kind of have to go with it, there are certain places that he passes through that just could not exist but I enjoyed that too as Walker just seemed to accept them and didn’t question them at all, it was as if he was wandering through part of his own subconscious, feeling like this search, this quest he was on was merely an excuse for adventure and the impetus that he needed to feel like he is doing something worthwhile with his life.

I didn’t intend to write so much but I really did enjoy this little book! Perfect to escape into for a couple of hours.

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Evelyn Waugh Month

This coming April, I have decided to give myself a challenge to read three Evelyn Waugh books in a month as there were quite a few of his books I wanted to read. I read Brideshead Revisited a few years ago and just loved it, and I have to admit that I was also inspired by Stephen Fry’s wonderful film Bright Young Things which was inspired by Waugh’s Vile Bodies. If you fancy joining in at all please do let me know!

The three that I have on my shelves are:

Vile Bodies
A Handful of Dust

Scoop

I plan to start with Scoop and will be reading this in the first week of April if anyone is up for a read-a-long. I’m also happy to take suggestions if there are any other books by Evelyn Waugh you think I should be reading.

P.S. Isn’t the incredibly writerly photo of Evelyn Waugh just exactly what you would expect of him?

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Book Review: The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

The Snow Child

I first heard about this book in 2012 when there seemed to be a lot of hype about it, and I remember it being recommended to me by a friend. It was at one point a suggestion for the book club I am part of but was put aside in favour of Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. I had forgotten about it for a while and then I saw it sitting on the bookshelves of a friend who kindly let me borrow it.

The book is set in the 1920s, when Mabel and Jack have moved to Alaska to start a new life after their child is stillborn. They are struggling to cope with the wilderness; Jack spends his days trying to get the land ready for crops and Mabel is struggling to cope with the overwhelming sadness that her childlessness brings. One night after the snow has started to fall, it is as if some magical spell comes over them and they run around outside playing in the snow, and build a little child made of snow. The next morning, the snow child is gone, as are the mittens and scarf they had used to decorate it, and they start to see glimpses of a little girl running around the wilderness and leaving footprints in the snow. This sparks an upturn in Mabel and Jack’s lives and they become friends with some fellow farmers, get help on the farm and Esther a close friend for Mabel, but one who is much more grounded and doesn’t at first believe Mabel when she talks of the snow child they have made.

The Snow Child was a bit of a slow starter for me. I wasn’t sure of the writing style and initially it struck me as a little unsophisticated, jumping straight into Mabel’s inner turmoil without much explanation or time for the reader to settle in. I put it aside for a week or so while I read The Sea Road and after going back to it I started to enjoy it a lot more. I think it helped that snow started to fall in Edinburgh that week so I was more than content to read a wintry tale.

The plot of The Snow Child takes its inspiration from a Russian fairytale about an elderly, childless couple who build a child in the snow, who brightens their lives for a little while but disappears when they do not offer a reward to a fox who has saved their little snow child from getting lost. Mabel becomes a little obsessed with this tale, and uses it as an interpretation of Faina’s odd behaviour, as she disappears in the spring and returns in the winter, and becomes feverish if she becomes too warm. I found Mabel a little frustrating at times, she was prone to dwell on the negative things in her life and is constantly questioning their decision to move to Alaska and I think doesn’t quite appreciate the amount of work that Jack will have to do to get their land to a state that they live off of. Her character does develop quite a lot through the novel, in part due to Faina’s influence on their lives, but I would argue more so as a result of her friendship with Esther, her neighbour. I loved Esther, in fact she may have been one of my favourite characters in the novel and her down to earth and practical manner was refreshing in comparison to Mabel.

There were some aspects to the book that I really loved. Faina’s life sounded magical, and I enjoyed the story of Faina and how she would roam about in the wilderness, living off of the land and being a bit of a free spirit. To be honest I think when I was a child I would have liked to do much the same thing! Although I think I was more of a summer baby… Jack and Mabel are always trying to tie her down though, saying she cannot live like a ‘woodland sprite’ all of her life and I think I resented the way they tried to tie her down just as she treats their attempts to comfort her with suspicion.

I found the story a little predictable at times, but the descriptions of the landscape could be very evocative and I did feel drawn into the story and setting, feeling the cold and the harsh reality of living somewhere like Alaska. Without giving too much away I would have preferred either this to be more of a fairytale as I felt this lay at times in a bit of an awkward middle-ground between fantasy and reality. I think I was just craving something more magical because it was snowy outside though so it could just be me!

It was an enjoyable and charming book and nice to curl up with on a cold night. There have been LOADS of reviews for this book – here are a few from some book blogs I like:

Lucybird’s Book Blog
Bibliomouse
Heavenali
Bundleofbooks

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A Wish List begins…

It seems like almost every other day that I come across another book that I want to read. I usually end up adding them to my ‘to-read’ list on Goodreads but I’d like to do this a little better and have a page on my blog where I keep a Wish List. I’ll try to include my sources too, as a little tip of the hat to the blog, or tweet, or article, or friend who brought the book to my attention.

You can have a look at the beginnings of it here.

At the moment, I am mostly coveting Life After Life by Kate Atkinson which I think sounds just wonderful, like a literary Groundhog Day.

LIfe After Life

This was mostly inspired by these reviews I saw on Bibliomouse and Lucybird’s Book Blog.

I have also been browsing through the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2013 Longlist which has some titles on it I’d love to read.

Women's Prize for Fiction Longlist 2013

Most notably, there is NW by Zadie Smith, Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple (which I first discovered through Book Riot’s Best Books of 2012 post), Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver and of course Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (after I have read Wolf Hall of course!).

I actually do have a Book Journal that was given to me by my Grannie for my 18th birthday. I used to update it all the time but have now found that all of my bookish thoughts and whims have gone digital. I’m going to dig that out and update it too I think – such a lovely thing to keep!

How do you keep track of what you have read, or what you’d like to read? Is it solely through your blog or online reading sites like Goodreads, or *gasp* the Wish List feature on Amazon? Or do you have a journal that you keep? Would love to hear your thoughts – and if you have any suggestions for the Wish List, do let me know!

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Book Review: The Sea Road by Margaret Elphinstone (A Re-Reading)

The Sea Road

A few weeks ago, we had our annual staff conference at Canongate Books and one of our assignments was to pick a ‘Gem from the Vault’ – this was loosely described as a book from Canongate’s backlist that you love and want to remind people about. I poured over my bookshelves, looking at the spines for that little red door emblem, or the older one, a big C, at the bottom of all the Canongate titles I own.

I stumbled upon The Sea Road by Margaret Elphinstone and decided that it would be my Gem and set about re-reading it. I first read it at university, in fact, I think it may have been one of the first novels I actually studied there. I was lucky enough to have Margaret Elphinstone as a lecturer in Creative Writing, and there was something so exciting to be reading a book written by someone I had actually met and was being taught by. So interesting to listen to what she was saying and to read her book simultaneously, looking out for all of the techniques and narrative styles that she discussed.

The Sea Road is the story of a real life woman, Gudrid Thorbjornardóttir, whose tale had been told as part of The Vinland Sagas, Icelandic sagas describing the exploration of the Americas in the 10th century by the Norse people. What Elphinstone does is give voice to Gudrid and to tell her tale in a way that draws you into her history and brings an ancient story to life.

The tale begins in Rome, where a young Icelandic monk has been asked by a cardinal to transcribe Gudrid’s tale to shed some light on her experiences with ghosts and spirituality. The tale that follows covers so much more than that, beginning with Gudrid’s childhood in Iceland where she was raised by Halldis, the local apothecary, to her travels to Greenland and Vinland, with her first husband Thorstein and then her second husband Karlsefni.

I love the narrative of this book, as Gudrid tells her story to Agnar, it feels like she is talking to you, the reader, as well. The story of her life is never straightforward and is often invaded by thoughts about the present, or even events that happened long after the ones she is speaking about. It is really interesting to see how on looking back at a life, it is difficult to think of events a linear way. Events split by many years can seem more related than those that happened on consecutive days, and it is always hard to look back at a specific objectively time without everything that has come after seeping in and declaring its presence. It’s almost as if time (to humans at least) is not linear; it is a web of moments in a life, not minutes or days.

The story is magical, and weaves in supernatural forces, as well as covering Gudrid’s conversion to Christianity. The ghosts of the past and the gods that she used to worship haunt her though, and one of the most affecting passages in the book is at the death of her first husband, Thorstein, when Gudrid battles with the ghosts of lost souls. I loved this supernatural element to the book and it gave a sense of perspective to the seclusion that the people felt in their exploration of new lands and their need for gods to guide them and bless them on the seas and the land.

Agnar talks to Gudrid but we never hear his voice except in the preface and epilogue; it is not his story that is important as we hear Gudrid’s replies to him. She is the central character, the one who needs a voice. What is interesting about her tale is that sometimes there are things that she can’t say, the italicised passages that we get in the book seem like the voice of the gods (or a god), looking down on all that is happening and giving us a seemingly objective view. Our memory of our lives is never comprehensive and sometimes we need a helping hand to fill in the gaps.

I remember when I read The Sea Road all those years ago at the beginning of uni that I was drawn into this tale. I always loved stories to do with Vikings and this one transported me to a similar place, of sea travellers and settlers, living off the land and trading with people from all over. It almost recalled the inquisitiveness of primary school days, when history feels new as you haven’t discovered it before and its foreignness is all quite exciting. I really enjoyed reading this book again and I would love to read more of Elphinstone’s books. I’ve been directed towards Voyageurs as my next port of call – duly added to the wish list!

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Book Review: Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

Wuthering Heights

I have been meaning to read this book for a long, long time. In actual fact, I started Wuthering Heights when I was in high school and got to the end of the first part and didn’t make it any further. I think I was disappointed and I’ll explain why. This review may contain spoilers – as it’s a classic I’d like to discuss it in a bit more detail.

When I was younger, my huge problem with the book was what I thought was the ‘so-called’ love story. I think this was a case of my expectations being vastly different to what the book was actually about. I imagined Wuthering Heights to be terribly melodramatic, full of swooning scenes on the moors and declarations of love, and even, dare I say it, a happy ending (for Cathy and Heathcliff). It is of course completely melodramatic, but the swooning scenes were probably heavily influenced by Kate Bush’s rather wonderful song inspired by the book and the dancing in her video (see below). Also, a scene from the TV show Sabrina the Teenage Witch when Sabrina’s Aunt Zelda is describing her love for the book and Sabrina magics herself into it and is wandering about in a flowy dress on a misty moor. The episode was called The Long and Winding Shortcut if you fancy watching it, although I will say that I watched it again recently and realised just how bad that programme was – I used to love it as well!

Anyway, onto the book. It’s one of those books that most people have heard of but maybe don’t know the story so to give you a feel for it, the synopsis on Penguin’s website captures the atmosphere rather well:

‘In a house haunted by memories, the past is everywhere … As darkness falls, a man caught in a snowstorm is forced to shelter at the strange, grim house Wuthering Heights. It is a place he will never forget. There he will come to learn the story of Cathy: how she was forced to choose between her well-meaning husband and the dangerous man she had loved since she was young. How her choice led to betrayal and terrible revenge – and continues to torment those in the present. How love can transgress authority, convention, even death. And how desire can kill.’

Spoilers coming up!

On my first reading of the book, I couldn’t believe that Cathy married Edgar and not Heathcliff, and that Heathcliff disappeared for years, only to return as a rich man. And Cathy dies?! It seems so obvious now, looking back, that her memory haunts Heathcliff and that’s why their love is so powerful and a classic love story but I just didn’t get that at the time.

On my second reading of the book I actually finished it and got a lot more out of reading it. I didn’t really like the characters all that much but found them incredibly interesting.

Heathcliff really is the original bad boy. He stalks Cathy and doesn’t listen to anyone who tries to thwart his intentions. He stalks about under her window and flaunts the love between him and Cathy in front of Edgar. I suppose maybe there are some women who would like to have someone that in love with them, not giving up on you even though you have already gotten married to someone else but I found him so obsessive. In real life, that would be terrifying, but as a character he really works.

And Cathy. Man, she was annoying. She’s a right madam, isn’t she? I think this was my big difficulty with the book on the second attempt – so few of the characters are likeable, they are all implicated in their own unhappiness, and are just so passive that they leave people to the cruelty of others, usually because they don’t have the courage to take on Heathcliff. I feel like there are so many gaps in the plot, like how Heathcliff got his fortune, how he manages to keep people under his spell and imprisoned by fear, and how he has no birth right to live at Wuthering Heights, but yet successfully takes over and Earnshaw is powerless to stop him.

It is such a powerful novel and it certainly succeeded in rousing strong emotions, although I must say that for me they were mainly negative ones. It sounds odd, but because of that I actually think this is such a great book. I got completely sucked into their world, the storytelling is gripping and I almost felt Heathcliff’s power working over me too – he enraged me but I struggled to think of ways that the characters could overcome his influence. I completely understand why it is a classic – it depicts many interesting contemporary issues, such as the rights of women at the time, legal ownership of land and guardianship of children. It is so much a novel of its time and it’s hard to think of how this could be set in a time like today with all of the connections we have outwith our own communities. Catherine Linton, for example, ends up marrying Linton Heathcliff even though he is a terrible choice for her and the only reason I can find for this is that she really had no opportunity to meet someone better!

What does everyone else think of Wuthering Heights? Have you ever read anything that you didn’t necessarily enjoy reading but appreciate how good it is all the same? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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