Monthly Archives: August 2013

Book Club Read: Tigers in Red Weather by Liza Klaussman

The UK cover of Tigers in Red Weather

The UK cover of Tigers in Red Weather

I think I first heard of Liza Klaussman’s Tigers in Red Weather last year, when Klaussman was at the Edinburgh book festival and this was up for Anobii’s First Book Award. It immediately caught my eye – first of all, the cover is stunning. It already seems like an iconic book cover to me, and after reading the book I think it strikes the mood just perfectly. I prefer the UK cover to the US edition, which seems a bit staged to me, and doesn’t quite capture the effortless glamour of the UK one.

The novel is part family saga, part murder mystery, set after the Second World War in the idyllic Martha’s Vineyard. Nick and her cousin Helena open the novel in a heatwave, dancing and drinking on their lawn as they look forward to their lives restarting. Helena will be setting off to LA to live with a new husband, while Nick is awaiting the return of her husband Hughes from duty. From the offset, the book is sultry, you can feel the heat and imagine the moonlit nights and salty air and feel the women’s excitement.

The novel is split into five sections, each told from the point of view of one member of Nick and Helena’s family, flashing back and forward in time, spanning across several decades and continents, always returning to the same focal point. The centre of the family is the house in Martha’s Vineyard, Tiger House, and the narratives centre particularly around the events of one summer when Nick’s daughter, Daisy, and Helena’s son, Ed, stumble across a young Hispanic maid who has been brutally murdered.

Circa 1950s - Couple walking with picnic basket on beach - this is how I imagine Nick and Hughes...

Circa 1950s – Couple walking with picnic basket on beach – this is how I imagine Nick and Hughes…

We start with Nick, who is intriguing, smart and intelligent, but also bored and prone to acts of defiance, such as strutting about her rather prim and proper neighbourhood in a revealing swimsuit, or getting drunk with the band she has hired to play at a party she is hosting. She describes her frustration at the husband the War returns to her, so different and distant from the man he was before, spending her days lazing around waiting for him to come home from work, worrying about what meals to make. Then her daughter, Daisy (then 13), picks up the narrative, skipping through a summer when she is intent on winning the junior tennis tournament and spends days in training. It is also the summer when she will first experience love and heartbreak, and this summer will have devastating effects on her life many years later.

I found Helena’s part the most difficult to deal with – she does not have an easy life in L.A. and I found myself wanting more for her, and desperately wanting her to wake up to the realities of life. When it is Hughes’ turn to pick up the thread, we see him in London during the War, at New Year, at a time when home, and Nick, seem very far away. I loved hearing his side of the story, but it is Ed’s narrative that you really wait on – he is like a shadow throughout the book, people are constantly accusing him of creeping up on them, and when he is caught in compromising situations, he describes his interest in people and their misdemeanors as ‘research’. He is a troubled character, feeling the effects of his mother’s passivity, having grown up watching his father as he obsessively collects film and photographs of an ex-girlfriend in the hope of making a film about her. There is something brooding about him that seems to hang over the family.

I didn’t appreciate at the beginning that there would be concurrent narratives from different points of view and I really enjoyed it as it gives you each member of the family’s side of the story. At the end, though, there are still mysteries, family secrets that are best left undiscovered. It highlights the connections that hold a family together that outsiders aren’t privy to, and that even at the worst of times a family will always look out for their own.

The US cover for Tigers in Red Weather

The US cover for Tigers in Red Weather

It is certainly a book that will stay with you. I was chatting about this with my Book Club friends at the beginning of the week and we all loved it. We all discussed how lovely it would be to drink gin cocktails from jam jars and laze on the beach. There are elements of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night in the glamour that surrounds Nick and Hughes, the appeal they have to others and the bond between them. With a little bit of Daisy and Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby in there too I imagine (and of course Klaussman gives Nick and Hughes’ daughter the name – not a coincidence I imagine). And the summer seaside glamour of Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan is also in there too, and the complexities of adult relationships, their children trying to comprehend the secrets between a husband and wife. It’s a heady book to get wrapped up in, and I really cannot wait to see what Liza Klaussman comes up with in her next book.

First Book Award

The other nominees for the Anobii First Book Award in 2012 can be seen here. There are some great books on the list, many of which I would love to read. That said, there are also several that I have never heard of and I wonder if being nominated for the Award has much influence on the visibility of the books and if sales go up much. The Award was won last year by Azazeel by Youssef Ziedan which I’ll admit is one I hadn’t heard of before.

firstbook

The First Book Award is now sponsored by ebooks by Sainsburys – the nominees for this years’ award are listed here, with the announcement of the winner to be made after voting closes on the 14th of October. If you want to vote, you can do so here. There are 42 books on the list and I have to admit that I haven’t read any of them so I won’t be voting this time round. There are quite a few that I haven’t heard of – although I have heard that The Fields by Kevin Maher (about a 13-year-old Irish boy growing up in Dublin in the ’80s) is very good – I actually heard Kevin Maher talking and reading from the book at the Edinburgh Book Festival and thought it sounded dark but funny too so will hopefully read that soon.

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Book Review: Natural Causes by James Oswald

natural causesNatural Causes by James Oswald was another audiobook I picked up on my Audible subscription. I was browsing through loads of different books, not sure which to pick. I was swithering over reading The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith (which is of course a pseudonym for J.K. Rowling) but I wasn’t sure if I wanted to give in to the hype just yet. It set me down a crime route and I started looking at crime fiction, trying to pick something out. I fancied something light-hearted (if you can call crime fiction that!), just something with a good, gripping story as I was needing a change from biographies. Christopher Brookmyre’s books seemed like the perfect thing to fit the bill but I had a listen to the previews and was a little put off by the narrator’s voice. That was when I remembered about James Oswald’s crime book set in Edinburgh.

James Oswald is a farmer as well as writer, and originally self-published his book, selling it (for free) through amazon as an ebook. It’s a really interesting self-publishing success story – Oswald now has a publisher behind him, with Penguin releasing his books in paperback. It was this story that brought the book to my attention so I decided to give the book a go. I recently read Laidlaw by William McIlvanney and loved how it evoked the city of Glasgow and I was hoping that Natural Causes would do the same for Edinburgh. Inspector McLean is the detective in Oswald’s Edinburgh, trying to hunt down the killer after a gruesome crime where an old man is disemboweled, and the killer of a young woman sacrificed in some kind of Pagan ritual in the 1940s, and also trying to find out what the link between the two is.

I really enjoyed the novel, I found it entertaining and gripping, and I admit that I kept listening to it as I walked around the house, listening to it while cleaning or doing the dishes to fit in some more reading time! It was familiar and easy to get into, and I found myself quickly warming to Inspector McLean and sympathising with him (and the troubled past that is eponymous in Detective Inspector’s – is there ever a fictional DI who doesn’t have a troubled past/marital issues/substance abuse problem?). There were a few things that I think could have been done better, for example, Inspector McLean is constantly having technology troubles – his phone runs out of battery about 17 times, he forgets to replace the tape in the answering machine, he is boggled at his colleagues abilities with comupters… I found it a little wearing after a time, and started playing some kind of game in my head whenever his incompetence with technology was mentioned, giving myself a mental bingo point. Yes, there was a hint of predictability to the plot, but I enjoyed the book all the same, and liked walking about in Edinburgh thinking about the characters and where they had been; of clairvoyants on Leith Walk (there actually is a lot shop where you can have tarot card readings), and tourists and performers on the Royal Mile during the festival.

Oswald has another book out in the Inspector McLean series called The Book of Souls. I am interested to see if having an editor will make Oswald’s writing style a little more polished – the story, characters and atmosphere are all there but I think a little bit of editing would have helped to make the book really stand out. I’ll certainly read the next instalment at some point as I did enjoy Natural Causes. I do have a few other books on my list that I plan on reading first though…incuding those two other McIlvanney books in the Laidlaw trilogy!

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On eReaders

nookAfter my work gave me a Nook Simple Touch (created by Barnes & Noble) to play about with, I read The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe. It was my first experience of reading an eBook in its entirety and I thought it high time that I consider ereaders properly and what my experience on using them were. It is a completely different experience – I’ll admit that I have been slightly against them, always favouring physical books.

There were a few things which I didn’t particularly like – the fact that I can’t flick through the pages to see how long the chapter is; the glare that you get when reading it next to a lamp or something like that; the worry that you’ll run out of battery; I find the buttons on the Nook can be a bit stiff when you’re flicking back and forward; and I kept finding that if something landed on the screen it was really sensitive, and pages would flick back and forth if I tried to wipe something off. The Nook also doesn’t lend itself very well to reading PDF or Word documents, something I find a bit frustrating as it would be quite useful for work to read manuscripts before publication.

Saying all that, I did enjoy some aspects of it – it’s light, fairly user-friendly and I do like having a reading light on it. It is so easy to download loads of books – there is a whole library at your fingertips and if you fancy reading something, it only takes a few minutes to download. Recently, Barnes & Noble had a 3-day 99p sale and I went on a bit of a binge, splurging on books that are currently out in hardback and that I was loath to buy because of that. I bought several books:

The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes
TransAtlantic by Colum McCann
And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini
May We Be Forgiven by AM Homes

I had the same rush and excitement I got from buying physical books but I can’t help but think that flash sales like that do devalue the book as an object somewhat – and yet, I succumbed. It is hard to resist a book at the best of times, even more so when it is so cheap. If I had the physical copy of a book in my flat, I doubt very much that I’d read it on an ereader. I find I read slowly on the Nook and I get the sense that I’m reading this never-ending document. There were also character errors and typos in my copy of The Best of Everything and I just find it all a bit impersonal if that makes any sense. Cold, almost, as if the book has been robbed of its casing and all that’s left is its naked soul. I miss that feeling of contentment when you look at a book on your shelf and you start thinking about it all over again, or pick it up and flick through it to read that passage that you really liked. I am definitely a bibliophile! They are definitely different beasts, ebooks and physical books but I understand the benefits of both. I will be reading on my Nook from time to time, especially the books I bought in the sale, but I wouldn’t consider myself a convert yet, even if books do seem to be filling up my shelves rather rapidly…

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Book Review: The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe

bestofeverythingThe Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe was a book I was inspired to read by the wonderful TV series Mad Men, much at the same time as I decided I would read The Group by Mary McCarthy which also featured in the show. Mad Men was a big inspiration a couple of of years ago, prompting book choices and Spotify playlists to accompany it and seeing Don Draper reading this book in bed in his pyjamas trying to get a better understanding of women really had me intrigued.

Set in 1950s New York, The Best of Everything tells the stories of several young women starting off their careers, fleeing their past, drawn by the lights and promise of the big city. I really wanted to love this book, and there were aspects of it that I did enjoy – the tales of excess in the publishing world, editors taking three-hour boozy lunches, the descriptions of the girls’ lives and everyday things such as clothes and hairstyles.

typingpoolI understand it’s popularity at the time – it doesn’t shy away from pre-marital sex or alcohol abuse or abortion. And it does portray a glamorous lifestyle, if not glamorous then certainly exciting. I liked the author’s note at the beginning, which described the young women in the typing pool who were typing up Rona Jaffe’s manuscript, and how they took to sharing the manuscript in a bid to find out what would happen next. It was the first time they felt that they had read about women just like themselves. I was intrigued by the characters, but I found myself incredibly frustrated by most of them too. All of them, at one point or another, are under some kind of illusion about a man. I wanted to shake them and tell them not to be so naive. I find it saddens me that even the more successful women (like Caroline with her career as an editor just kicking off) dreaming of finding a husband and spending days playing house. I know that says more about me and the time I live in (for which I am eternally grateful!) but I think I was looking for something a bit more feminist, about women making their way despite the cultural expectations. It’s not the book’s fault it didn’t do this and it is possibly ‘more fool me’ for expecting something different.

It has lead me to do a bit of internet browsing on the topic and I find it so fascinating, listening to women (and men) speaking at the time and the views they expressed. There’s an eye-opening video on youtube about Attitudes towards working women in the 1950s which I just had to share. I think it portrays very well the threat mean felt by what they called ‘career girls’, which lead them to patronising women in an effort to reinforce the expectation that a woman’s goal in life should be to have a husband, settle down and have a family, whether she thinks so or not. This video in particular is so condescending towards a young ‘career girl’ that you can but shake your head in disbelief. Of course, I’m looking at the book (and this video) with my 21st-century views and cultural landscape. I really do wonder what I would have done if I had been born 60 years ago and had been starting my career in the ’50s. Saying that though, both of my grandmothers continued to work after they were married, and returned to work when their children were at school so perhaps life in the US in the ’50s for young women was a different experience to the UK.

I have recently been given a Nook from my work and it just so happened that this book had already been loaded up there. It was an odd experience, especially when the book is set in a publishing house and there is often talk of carting manuscripts about. I started writing this review and it ended up as much a discussion about the Nook as the book itself so I have split it into two separate posts – so my post On eReaders will follow.

On a side note, if you haven’t watched Mad Men then I encourage you to do so – the writing is brilliant, and the characters (although flawed) are just continually interesting. I love that the show treats its characters like real people – the writers realise that their characters are changeable, that they grow and make mistakes and can often do surprising and unexpected things – it is very hard to pigeon-hole any one of them. And the setting and weaving in of different historical and cultural events is just brilliant, I can’t recommend it highly enough. But I’ll stop rambling about the greatness of Mad Men now, I promise. The Best of Everything ceratinly got me thinking even if I found it frustrating. Definitely a book to read with it’s time and setting in mind. I’d quite like to see the film as well (which was filmed in the late ’50s) – the movie poster is pretty enchanting…the-best-of-everything-movie-poster-751438

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Tearjerkers

panopticonIt’s not often that I cry while reading a book. I’m not really sure why that is, as I find myself crying at TV programmes and films fairly often. I was recently reading Jenni Fagan’s wonderful debut novel The Panopticon and it had me welling up in the middle of my lunch hour. I had to stop reading to regain some modicum of control so I wouldn’t be blubbing into my laptop. (Those salty tears aren’t good for circuit boards I hear…)

So this had me thinking, which books have I found truly moving, enough to have me crying, either at the beauty of the novel, or the tragedy that is unfolding. I’ve come up with a short list:

Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernières

captain corellis mandolinThis is the first book I remember crying over. I was reading it for a critical essay I was writing for my English Standard Grade. I can’t remember why I picked it – I think it may have been a recommendation from my Mum. Anyway, the bit that got me involved a firing squad and an act of bravery. I won’t say much more than that as I don’t want to give anything away but I remember sitting in the back of the car (most likely on one of the frequent trips to Glasgow to see family), having to stop reading so I wouldn’t start bawling and my brother wouldn’t give me a slagging for crying at a book.

Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon

Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon

Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon

Sunset Song was a formative book in my life, in that it was the experience of reading it that made me realise that I wanted to go to university and study English. I’d always loved books but for some reason it had never really occurred to me before that this could be more than just a past-time. I had dreamt of being an author, of course, and had written short stories and childish novels but that was as far as the dream had gone. But getting back to the crying…I studied this as part of my Higher English course and it really spoke to me – I started looking at the landscape more and thinking more often about national identity and a person’s connection to their homeland. I cried at this in the middle of an English class, while my teacher read out a passage towards the end of the book about Chris’s husband and the First World War. There seemed to be some kind of collective grief going on as I remember several others in the class wiping their eyes as well…

Sophie’s Choice by William Styron

j1cmqfdNever have I cried so much at one book than I did when I read Sophie’s Choice. I read it several summers ago, when I was still at uni and my flatmate had gone home for the summer, leaving me all on my lonesome. I was working almost full-time in a pub but even that didn’t seem to fill up my time off so much, so I spent hours and hours just lazing about reading. I love the memory of that summer, days stretching out in front of me… I had picked the book up at the local Salvation Army shop for 50p – it was an old battered edition with a film still with Meryl Streep on the cover. I had often heard comments about Sophie’s Choice but didn’t really know what it was about – boy was I in for a roller coaster ride! It is such a powerful book, and one that I think should be recommended reading for those who truly want to understand the Holocaust and the misery of the concentration camps. It put a lot of things into perspective for me, and despite History classes studying the Second World War, this was the first time that I really comprehended the devastation, cruelty and sheer number of casualties in the war. I would urge everyone to read it – although I’d also warn you that it certainly isn’t an easy-going read.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

The Book ThiefAnd to the Second World War again with this one – it is a young adult book so slightly more accessible than Sophie’s Choice but by no means less affecting. It is the War seen through the eyes of young Liesel, adopted by a family in a new town and trying to understand the injustices and contradictions of the war and life in Nazi Germany. We follow her as she steals books and food, we see her being taught to read by her adopted father, we see her offering some solace to Jews and we hope that the war will not have too devastating an effect on her life. Which is too much to ask of course, the book is narrated by Death, the Grim Reaper, and from the very beginning you know that not everyone will survive. This is a very moving book, and one that is told so inventively.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling

harrypotterhalfbloodprinceNow onto something a little more light-hearted (if you can call it that!). If you’re a Harry Potter fan then you’ll know what happens at the end of this book so I shall not divulge in case there is someone reading this who hasn’t succumbed (rather unlikely) to the amazing series that is Harry Potter. I can’t remember if I have re-read this one – I’ve definitely read the first five twice – but certainly every time a certain scene plays in the film I start welling up again…

The History of Love by Nicole Krauss

The History of LoveI can’t remember what sparked me off with this book particularly – it was just so beautiful and some of the images of book pages and words were just perfect. I wrote a review of this last year which you can read here if you’d like to know more – it was one of my more essay-like reviews so I think I’ll let it speak for me again!

I love having those moments with books, where you are just so involved and you can’t help but shed a tear or two. What are your tearjerker books? Have you ever cried while reading a book in public? One of these days I know I’m going to end up howling on a bus on my morning commute!

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