Monthly Archives: November 2013

Wish List Update

It’s been a little while since I have added anything to my Wish List so I thought it was about time I added a book I have been eagerly anticipating. I was first introduced to Donna Tartt by my aunt, who gave me a copy of The Secret History for my 18th birthday, as I was about to embark on a month-long stay working and living in France before I headed off to university. I absolutely loved the book and several years later I got around to reading her second novel The Little Friend which I wasn’t as keen on but still found the characters and scenes very impressionable.

dt.common.streams.StreamServer.clsSo next on my Wish List is The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, which I’m sure many of you will have seen in bookshops and everywhere across the media. Synopsis is below:

‘Aged thirteen, Theo Decker, son of a devoted mother and a reckless, largely absent father, survives an accident that otherwise tears his life apart. Alone and rudderless in New York, he is taken in by the family of a wealthy friend. He is tormented by an unbearable longing for his mother, and down the years clings to the thing that most reminds him of her: a small, strangely captivating painting that ultimately draws him into the criminal underworld. As he grows up, Theo learns to glide between the drawing rooms of the rich and the dusty antiques store where he works. He is alienated and in love – and his talisman, the painting, places him at the centre of a narrowing, ever more dangerous circle. The Goldfinch is a haunted odyssey through present-day America and a drama of enthralling power. Combining unforgettably vivid characters and thrilling suspense, it is a beautiful, addictive triumph – a sweeping story of loss and obsession, of survival and self-invention, of the deepest mysteries of love, identity and fate.’

I think it sounds very intriguing – and it has also been getting great reviews from the blogging community so I can’t wait to get reading it!

I’ve made a few updates on the Wish List as well to add reviews for books I’ve read from it. So far, I have reviews to The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan and May We Be Forgiven by A.M. Homes. I’ve also read Life After Life and will be reviewing that shortly. What’s on your wish list at the moment?

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Non-Fiction Reading Challenge

I’ve been thinking recently that I need to make a bit of an adjustment in my reading. As much as I enjoy fiction, I think it may be time to start exploring non-fiction and expanding my horizons a little, become a bit more of a grown-up and learn more about this world. There is so much out there to choose from; biography, journalism, essays, history, natural history, narrative non-fiction, food writing, travel writing… For some reason, I have it in my head that non-fiction is a bit boring compared to fiction and I want to change that. This is why I’ve decided to challenge myself to read more non-fiction, trying out different genres to properly give it a go. I also don’t have a great track record for reviewing non-fiction so part of my challenge will be to review each and very single non-fiction title I read until the end of 2014.

The Book of Tea just kids  In Cold Blood the-diving-bell-and-the-butterfly-book-cover-2

 

 

 

I’ve been trying to think of non-fiction books I’ve loved and there actually have been quite a few, from classics such as In Cold Blood by Truman Capote which I read many years ago and still resonates, to the wonderful and moving autobiography I listened to recently, Just Kids by Patti Smith. Of the books I read last year, only two were non-fiction – the memoir on locked-in syndrome (complete paralysis) The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly by journalist Jean-Dominique Bauby and The Book of Tea by Kakuzo Okakura. In 2013 so far, I have read three non-fiction books – the first collection of essays I’ve read in full, Katie Roiphe’s In Praise of Messy lives, along with two autobiographies, Stephen Fry’s memoir of his boyhood and youth Moab is My Washpot and Just Kids.

So, onto the next lot. I’ve been making a list of a few titles I would like to read. I’m challenging myself to read one a month, starting in December. Here’s a summary of my proposed list so far:

 

anne-frank-coverThe Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
Even though I said fairly recently that I struggle with literature dealing with the Holocaust, this is a book that is so central to the canon (and is also fairly well-read by primary school pupils studying the Second World War) that I’m not sure how I’ve gone this long without reading it and I want to rectify this soon.

 

wildwoodtreesWildwood: A Journey Through Trees by Roger Deakin
I bought this a couple of years ago from my local bookshop, I was just so taken with the idea of the book. And yet, I’ve still not picked it up to read. I love trees, something that has been a point of playful ridicule between family and friends for some time now. It’ll be my first foray into natural history and I’m hoping it’ll be the first of many.

 

TellingRoomThe Telling Room by Michael Paterniti
This book is all about a hournalist who moves to Spain after hearing the story of a feud in the village of Gúzman in Spain, over the recipe for supposedly the world’s greatest cheese. I love all things Spanish, and am increasingly starting to feel like a bit of a foodie so this sounds like the perfect book for me.

 

9781782112563.main.jpegWhat Do Women Want? by Daniel Bergner
Recently I have been really enjoying watching Channel 4 series Masters of Sex about the original sex therapists Dr William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the first people to really explore the science of sex and human sexual response. Aside from the period detail akin to one of my favourite shows Mad Men, this has really got me thinking about societal and personal attitudes towards sexuality and gender issues. In this book, Bergner challenges held beliefs on women as mainly monogamous creatures. Should be an interesting read.

female eunuchThe Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer
This leads on perfectly to my next choice, a book I have been meaning to read for years. It’s pretty much essential reading for anyone wanting to explore feminist theory and issues of gender in society. I hope my boyfriend is ready for me going on about how women have been (and still are) marginalised in society!

 

running for your lifeThis Is Running for Your Life by Michelle Orange
This book of essays came out earlier this year and was in a list of best non-fiction books of 2013, with essays exploring the culture in a med-dominated world. I thought it would be a good way to read something new and current, as well as broadening my horizons by adding some essays to my non-fiction list.

 

I don’t want to make this a huuuuge long post some other titles I’m considering are…

Just My Type by Simon Garfield
Artful by Ali Smith
The Gift by Lewis Hyde
Breakfast at the Exit Café by Wayne Grady & Merilyn Simonds
Love, Nina by Nina Stibbe
The Trip to Echo Spring by Olivia Laing
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt
Point of Departure by James Cameron
Red Dust Road by Jackie Kay
Along with some essays by Joan Didion, David Foster Wallace and Virginia Woolf.

I have quite a few to be getting on with but if anyone has suggestions for favourite non-fiction books I could add to my list then they will be very gratefully received as I feel like a bit of a novice!

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Book Review: Monsieur Le Commandant by Romain Solcombe

Monsieur-le-CommandantIn Monsieur Le Commandant, writer Paul-Jean Husson writes a letter in Occupied France to a local high-ranking German officer stationed in his town. In the letter, Paul-Jean talks of his life just before and during the Second World War and devotes many pages to describing his struggling love for his son’s wife, German film star Ilse. The twist in this novel is that Paul-Jean isn’t writing to protect himself or plead for anyone’s soul, but to justify what he feels is an inexcusable hesitation and delay in outing a Jew. The letter begins with Paul-Jean relating how Ilse came into his life, after marrying his son and moving to France to set up a life. What follows are a set of tragic circumstances, including accidental death, family breakdown and Alzheimer’s as well as all of the disruption and death that the coming of the Second World War brings.

I found this to be a very powerful book – Paul-Jean claims to wholly approve of, and actively encourages, the capture of Jews in France and their removal to concentration camps. He voices some strong and abhorrent opinions which are pretty challenging. There are several episodes which I found hard to stomach, particularly a scene involving the torture of a young couple involved in the Resistance which I could barely stand to read. It’s one of those books that you don’t really ‘enjoy’ reading as such – that isn’t its purpose. It makes you feel uncomfortable as some of the views and actions of those involved are discomfiting. You are meant to be judging Paul-Jean and rightly so. There was part of me that didn’t want to be seen reading this book – I was sitting on the bus trying to hide the pages from people’s eyes, afraid that people would be horrified by what I was reading, this terrible testimony on one man’s vehement anti-semitism.

I know I’m just being naive, hoping for a better, more honourable ending for the characters but I was a little disappointed that after the letter ends, there is a summary of what happened to each of the characters. While I was reading Paul-Jean’s letter, I liked the ambiguity, wondering if his vehemence towards the Jews was real or a cover for protecting his daughter-in-law from being revealed to be a Jew. I didn’t want to know what happened – in some ways it would have been better to be left wondering about the characters. There are so many untold stories from the Second World War, so many people who disappeared that it seems fairer to let some of them survive with their dignity intact.

I find it really hard to read about the Holocaust, and I’m starting to feel like I have exhausted that period in history in my reading. I genuinely find it really hard-going and difficult to deal with – Sophie’s Choice by William Styron was a particular example which had a profound effect on me (which I covered in my list of Tearjerkers), and The Book Thief by Markus Zusak too. Monsieur Le Commandant is not an easy read and won’t be to everyone’s taste but I think it is important to read books that challenge you and take you out of your comfort zone – that’s what is so powerful about literature. It can transport you to a different place and time, and open your eyes to some of the joys and, in this case, the horrors of human nature. If you’re interested in reading more about fiction that makes you uncomfortable, there is a great post on Confronting vs Comforting Fiction on the Savidge Reads blog (which I noted has Monsieur Le Commandant featured in a photo of several confronting books).

I was sent a copy of this book by the publisher, Gallic Books. For further reading on Slocombe’s novel, there’s an interview with the author on Gallic Books’ website, where he discusses his inspiration for the novel and the project he was involved in. Gallic Books have sent me another couple of books for review The Foundling Boy and The People in the Photo. The former is out in December and the latter isn’t out until next year (so I will wait a while before reading and reviewing that one). Gallic Books have sent me several books so far and I have enjoyed them all in different ways so I’m looking forward to reading these.

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Autumn Reading Round-Up, part 2.

Up next in my review of books I’ve read this autumn are a few books that were a bit of a mixed bag (see Autumn Reading Round-Up, part 1. for the first lot). In writing these thoughts down though I find I still enjoy engaging with the books I have read and hope to get back into full reviews once more in the near future and develop some of my responses to them a bit more. For now, these sparse words will have to do…

conversations in sicilyConversations in Sicily by Elio Vittorini
I started reading this book on a flight to Rome, where I was heading to start off a mini-road trip up towards Bologna, as it felt like the perfect time to read some Italian fiction. It seems at first to be a simple story, of a man returning home to visit his mother in a small town in Sicily and having conversations with the people he meets along the way. It soon becomes clear that everything is a little mixed up, as times and places and people interchange, and events re-occur in similar but slightly varied ways. There is a big serving of Magical Realism towards the end as the protagonist Silvestro becomes increasingly drunk, and many references to Vittorini’s theory of things being ‘twice real’ – existing simultaneously in the moment they occur and in a person’s memory or perception. It is one of those wonderful subtle novels which are so powerful, hidden under the radar of censorship but still saying so much about the times they’re written in.

We-Need-New-NamesWe Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo
This book was another shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize this year. Set in Zimbabwe, it is the story of a young girl called Darling living in a shanty called Paradise. The first part of We Need New Names follows Darling running around Paradise and its environs with a band of friends, who have their own code of games and language that feels really fresh. The first part is brilliant, the voices of the children, the way they speak and how they see life opens your eyes. In the second part of the novel, Darling moves to Detroit, Michigan (or ‘Destroyedmichygen’ to her friends), and lives with the culture shock between the life she has left behind and her new life in America. However in the second part, the magic of the prose, the life in it, seems to disappear. There’s no doubt that this novel has something to say, but it felt like it got a little bit lost.

The book did bring to mind a really enlightening TED Talk I watched by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (author of Half of a Yellow Sun which I have been meaning to read for quite some time now!) on ‘The Danger of a Single Story’ in which she discusses how she finds that African authors struggle to find their authentic cultural voice, being so influenced not only by other cultures which infiltrate theirs, but the views of Africa that prevail, those of poverty, famine, drought and AIDs. I found this interesting to recall while reading We Need New Names as the book featured so many of these things but in the end seemed weighed down by western culture and ideas.

anywheresbetterthanhereAnywhere’s Better Than Here by Zöe Venditozzi
I think this book came under my radar after it was shortlisted for the Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize, in fact, I think it won the public vote (although the final accolade went to Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life). At its centre is the slightly aimless, 20-something Laurie who is bored with working in a call centre and living with her unemployed and unambitious boyfriend Ed whose greatest achievement in a day seems to be sticking a washing on. Laurie’s world is pretty bleak and she isn’t her own best friend, vacillating over decisions and embarking on a love affair of sorts with the emotionally-absent ex-army man Gerry. I thought the voice of the characters, and in Laurie in particular, were very clear, and felt a lot more like real life than some of the voices in fiction, but then perhaps it’s more real to me as it’s set in Scotland. Disappointingly though, I felt the story didn’t go anywhere particulary, and the plot took a bit of a turn for the weird about half way through and became pretty predictable. Saying that, I do think Venditozzi is a name to watch out for – hopefully her next book will build on the knack for character and world-building she has and serve a more hooking plot to go along with it.

yellowbirds-210The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers
This is one of the first successful novels that really takes on the Iraq war and the after effects on soldiers who have fought in it, struggling to deal with everything they have witnessed. The book, despite its difficult subject, is beautiful at times, and brutal, full of vivid imagery which are just snapshots of the sights these men at war have seen. It follows the story of one soldier, Bartle, who is trying to come to terms with the death of his fellow soldier and friend Murphy, and the guilt he feels at not being able to keep the promise he made to Murphy’s mother to keep him safe. It’s a tragic story, and from the beginning you know it’s a pointless exercise as the soldiers continually attempt to gain ground and that for many of them, there is no way to cheat death. It’s a book filled with poignant moments, especially the imagery of the title, when Murphy recalls his grandfather bringing canaries out of the mines, opening the doors to set them free and the birds fluttering about in confusion and coming back to rest by the cages. This has been lauded as a classic of war writing to stand alongside the likes of All Quiet On the Western Front. I thought this book was really affecting and look forward to seeing what Powers comes up with next.

method actors guideA Method Actor’s Guide to Jekyll and Hyde by Kevin MacNeil
I bought this book as I read MacNeil’s début novel The Stornoway Way several years ago now and thought it was just brilliant and I loved the way it was written. I also had the luck of seeing Kevin MacNeil perform with William Campbell this summer (they combine guitar with poetry – their song Local Man Ruins Everything was particularly good) at Jura Unbound, a series of nights of free events in the Spiegeltent at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. This reminded me of his other book so I picked it up a the Festival bookshop. The book started off really well and brought back memories of MacNeil’s unique way of writing with equal warmth and wit. The story involves actor Robert whose life starts to take some strange turns when he crashes his bike en route to rehearsals for a production of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (the classic story by Robert Louis Stevenson on a man with a split personality). The book is enjoyable and a pretty farcical, and I really enjoyed the send ups of actors, writers and directors. There is a serious side to it as well, as an exploration of bipolar disorder and the effect it has on a person’s life and those around him or her. I preferred The Stornoway Way but would recommend this to fan’s of MacNeil’s writing, and found it good fun company to while away a few hours with.

On a related note, today is Robert Louis Stevenson Day! There’s always loads going on across Edinburgh and the Edinburgh UNESCO City of Literature Trust have lots of info and materials on their website to go along with RLSDay2013.

I’ve got some more audio round-ups and full reviews coming soon, it will feel nice to be back on it again. Right now, I’m about 100 pages into Wilkie Collins’ classic ghost story The Woman in White which I’ve been meaning to read for ages. It’s just starting to get creepy… What are you reading this autumn?

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Autumn Reading Round-Up, part 1.

Jeezo, is it November already?! I’m quite behind on my reviewing and didn’t seem to notice the time flying by. I’ve read some great books over the past couple of months and even though I don’t plan to write a full review of them, I still wanted to write down some thoughts. Here’s the first batch…

colm-toibin-the-testament-of-maryThe Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín
I love Colm Tóibín. I loved his book Brooklyn and listened to a brilliant interview on the Guardian Books podcast which really brought the novel alive. The Testament of Mary was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize this year (which was won, in the end, by The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton). It’s a novella, a short little book that is more a monologue than a story as such. Everyone knows the story of the Crucifixion, but no one has really given Mary a voice before. I thought this book was very evocative, and perhaps it deserved more time than I gave it (I hurried through it all in one go one Saturday morning). The time and the place felt real and you really got a sense of the pain and miscomprehension Mary felt watching her son grow from boy to man to Son of God, into someone she could barely recognise. Part of me thinks this book went over my head a little bit, as so many people I’ve spoken to have thought it was wonderful. One to revisit and spend more time savouring, I think.

the-shining-girls-book-cover-2The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes
I bought this book as I thought the idea of a time-travelling serial murderer being hunted down by the one victim who managed to get away sounded great. It was such an interesting idea and there were parts of it that I really enjoyed, the murderer Harper was intensely creepy, the house he lived in shifted and changed and spurred him on to kill more ‘Shining Girls’, and the stories of the murders were quite harrowing. The story was clearly well-researched and the Boston setting from the Depression era to the nineties changed and evolved. There was an intricacy to the plot, with clues and symbols dotted throughout the text, linking the women and the different times and places. Despite that, I was overall pretty disappointed by the novel as I found the main character Kirby (the one who got away) a little irritating and I found the love interest to be utterly pointless – it just didn’t serve the plot at all. This could have been a great book but the narrative featuring Kirby wasn’t as strong as the narrative with Harper and that really let it down as about half of the book was dedicated to each of them.

may we be forgivenMay We Be Forgiven by A. M. Homes
This book won the Women’s Prize for Fiction this year (also up were Life After Life by Kate Atkinson which I loved and will talk about in my audio round-up still to come). The action of May We Be Forgiven centres around one man, Harold, who is thrown in at the deep end when his brother is involved in an accident, his marriage breaks down and he has to look after his brother’s family. I don’t want to say too much more and give the story away, as the story was pretty crazy. It keeps you on your toes and the storyline goes down unexpected routes, involving family betrayals, adoption of an orphan and an elderly senile couple, trips to Disneyland, a gay love affair between a teacher and pupil, and a covert criminal rehabilitation scheme. It sounds mad when you write it down like this, but it works. There is something uplifting about the novel, in the way that Harold manages to pull together a family of sorts after his own have come undone, and the characters begin to find peace after some pretty traumatic events. I’ve heard that A.M, Homes earlier novel This Book Will Save Your Life is even better so I will look forward to reading that at some point soon.

crimson petalThe Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber
I have been meaning to read this book for soooo long. Ever since I saw the BBC TV adaptation and loved it, and then I started working at Canongate this still gleamed down at me from my bookshelf. I absolutely loved it, and it was just the type of thing I was looking for, a long weighty Victorian novel to get stuck into as winter starts to set in. I knew the story already but very much enjoyed the novel, it is the way the story is told that makes it so special, the way the narrator invites you in, whispering lasciviously in your ear and letting you peek through the keyholes into the underbelly of Victorian life that society tried so hard to keep hidden. The world that Faber creates is wonderful, bringing to life all of the sights and smells of all parts of London. The wordly-wise and smart Sugar (the prostitute at the centre of the novel) is an unforgettable character, and the innocent and dreamy Agnes (the wife of the man who hires Sugar as his live-in concubine) equally so. I’d also highly reccommend the BBC TV adaptation as it was wonderful too, and quite true to the novel.

the appleThe Apple by Michel Faber
I rattled through this the couple of days after I finished The Crimson Petal and the White, as I wanted to know more about what had become of the characters. There aren’t any huge revelations, just a few little teasers and these short stories are a pleasing way to dip back into the Crimson Petal world if you’ve been missing it. I’m looking forward to reading Faber’s first novel Under the Skin very soon – there’s a film coming out of it next year starring Scarlett Johansson which has been getting very good reviews!

I’ll have the next lot up tomorrow. What have you all been reading this autumn?

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