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Books to Read in One Sitting

I quite often read relatively slim tomes, without writing down enough thoughts in my notebook to type up a full review. I have collected together ten such books which I have very much enjoyed, and which are fitting to read in a single sitting.

1. My Robin by Frances Hodgson Burnett (50 pages)

‘Fans of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel The Secret Garden will relish this charming anecdote that further expands upon the robin that features in that book. In response to a reader’s letter, Burnett reminisces about her love of English robins — and one in particular that changed her life forever.’

2. Someone Not Really Her Mother by Harriet Scott Chessman (162 pages)

‘In this graceful and compassionate fiction, three generations of mothers and daughters in the McCarthy family face the challenges of Alzheimer’s. This story offers unusual insight into the consciousness of Hannah Pearl, who lives her daily life with courage and generosity in spite of her confusion. Although her daughter and granddaughters attempt to help her stay in the present of her Connecticut shoreline town, Hannah increasingly inhabits the world of her ardent youth in war-torn France and England. As Miranda McCarthy and her daughters Fiona and Ida walk on tiptoe around Hannah’s secrets, it is the reader who discovers and illuminates all the pieces of this intelligent and dream-like puzzle.’

3. Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri (176 pages)

‘A marvelous new novel from the Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Lowland and Interpreter of Maladies–her first in nearly a decade.

Exuberance and dread, attachment and estrangement: in this novel, Jhumpa Lahiri stretches her themes to the limit. The woman at the center wavers between stasis and movement, between the need to belong and the refusal to form lasting ties. The city she calls home, an engaging backdrop to her days, acts as a confidant: the sidewalks around her house, parks, bridges, piazzas, streets, stores, coffee bars. We follow her to the pool she frequents and to the train station that sometimes leads her to her mother, mired in a desperate solitude after her father’s untimely death. In addition to colleagues at work, where she never quite feels at ease, she has girl friends, guy friends, and “him,” a shadow who both consoles and unsettles her. But in the arc of a year, as one season gives way to the next, transformation awaits. One day at the sea, both overwhelmed and replenished by the sun’s vital heat, her perspective will change. This is the first novel she has written in Italian and translated into English. It brims with the impulse to cross barriers. By grafting herself onto a new literary language, Lahiri has pushed herself to a new level of artistic achievement.’

4. The Part-Time Job by P.D. James (46 pages)

‘Follow the ‘Queen of Crime’ as she takes us into the mind of a man who has waited decades to enact his patient, ingenious revenge on a school bully.’

Also included in The Part-Time Job is a highly enjoyable essay entitled ‘Murder Most Foul’, which I feel the book is worth picking up for alone.

5. The Shortest Day by Colm Tóibín (31 pages)

In Ireland, a man of reason is drawn to a true mystery older than the Pyramids and Stonehenge in this enthralling story about ethereal secrets by New York Times bestselling author Colm Tóibín.

During the winter solstice, on the shortest day and longest night of the year, the ancient burial chamber at Newgrange is empowered. Its mystifying source is a haunting tale told by locals.

Professor O’Kelly believes an archaeologist’s job is to make known only what can be proved. He is undeterred by ghost stories, idle speculation, and caution. Much to the chagrin of the living souls in County Meath. As well as those entombed in the sacred darkness of Newgrange itself. They’re determined to protect the secret of the light, guarded for more than five thousand years. And they know O’Kelly is coming for it.’

6. My Mortal Enemy by Willa Cather (112 pages)

‘”Sometimes, when I have watched the bright beginning of a love story, when I have seen a common feeling exalted into beauty by imagination, generosity, and the flaming courage of youth, I have heard again that strange complaint breathed by a dying woman into the stillness of night, like a confession of the soul: ‘Why must I die like this, alone with my mortal enemy.'”

Willa Cather’s protagonist in My Mortal Enemy is Myra Henshawe, who as a young woman gave up a fortune to marry for love—a boldly romantic gesture that became a legend in her family. But this worldly, sarcastic, and perhaps even wicked woman may have been made for something greater than love.

In her portrait of Myra and in her exquisitely nuanced depiction of her marriage, Cather shows the evolution of a human spirit as it comes to bridle against the constraints of ordinary happiness and seek an otherworldly fulfillment. My Mortal Enemy is a work whose drama and intensely moral imagination make it unforgettable.’

7. The Touchstone by Edith Wharton (112 pages)

‘Glancing by chance at an advertisement in the Spectator, Stephen Glennard perceives a way to escape the downward spiral his career has taken, begin a new life for himself, and win the hand of the beautiful Alexa Trent. It would seem he has one highly sought-after possession: the letters written to him by the eminent and now deceased author, Margaret Aubyn. All he need do is silence his uneasy conscience and sell the letters for publication.

As the publicity frenzy around its publication heightens, the Aubyn Letters becomes the latest hot topic among the glamorous and money-driven society that Glennard’s wealth now gives him entrée to. And the source of greatest fascination is the identity of the man whom Aubyn so adored but who has betrayed her so irrevocably. Glennard, resolute in his silence, can only watch in dismay as, from the grave, Aubyn begins to exert a powerful and unmistakable influence over him.

Exploring the dual themes of money and moral compromise, The Touchstone is an early and extremely accomplished work, foreshadowing many of Wharton’s greatest novels.’

8. Summerwater by Sarah Moss (208 pages)

‘On the longest day of the summer, twelve people sit cooped up with their families in a faded Scottish cabin park. The endless rain leaves them with little to do but watch the other residents.

A woman goes running up the Ben as if fleeing; a retired couple reminisce about neighbours long since moved on; a teenage boy braves the dark waters of the loch in his red kayak. Each person is wrapped in their own cares but increasingly alert to the makeshift community around them. One particular family, a mother and daughter without the right clothes or the right manners, starts to draw the attention of the others. Tensions rise and all watch on, unaware of the tragedy that lies ahead as night finally falls.’

9. Olivia by Dorothy Strachey (112 pages)

‘When Olivia turns sixteen she is sent to a Parisian finishing school to broaden her education. Soon after her arrival, she finds herself falling under the spell of her beautiful and charismatic teacher. But Madamoiselle Julie’s life is not as straightforward as Olivia imagines and the school year is destined to end abruptly in tragedy.’

10. The Fruit of My Woman by Han Kang (28 pages)

The Fruit of My Woman is about a woman born in an impoverished fishing village. She wants to go to the ends of the earth on her own but, believing that marriage is ultimately one of the best ways to face the world, she ends up settling down with her husband. They gradually lose their attachment and affection towards each other. Aside from the communication problem, the woman’s wish of running away from her husband to a remote place fails to come true. She then imagines herself as a plant soaring through the veranda ceiling of her house up to the roof top. Through this outstanding story, the writer shows that people have a strong will to escape from the mental fatigue and hopelessness of modern life.’

Are you tempted by any of these books? Which are your favourite books to read in one sitting?

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Books for Wintertime

I have always been a seasonal reader to an extent – particularly, it must be said, when it comes to Christmas-themed books – but I feel that my reading choices have been aligned more with the seasons in the last tumultuous year. Connecting my reading with the natural world around me has given me a sense of calm whilst the world has reached such a point of crisis, and picking up a seasonally themed book has become rather a soothing task. With this in mind, I wanted to collect together eight books which I feel will be perfect picks for winter, and which I hope you will want to include in your own reading journeys.

These books are best enjoyed with a big mug of cocoa, a light dusting of snowfall outside your window, and a cosy blanket

1. A Winter Book by Tove Jansson

‘Following the widely acclaimed and bestselling The Summer Book, here is a Winter Book collection of some of Tove Jansson’s best loved and most famous stories. Drawn from youth and older age, and spanning most of the twentieth century, this newly translated selection provides a thrilling showcase of the great Finnish writer’s prose, scattered with insights and home truths. It has been selected and is introduced by Ali Smith, and there are afterwords by Philip Pullman, Esther Freud and Frank Cottrell Boyce. The Winter Book features thirteen stories from Tove Jansson’s first book for adults, The Sculptor’s Daughter (1968) along with seven of her most cherished later stories (from 1971 to 1996), translated into English and published here for the first time.’

2. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis

‘Narnia… the land beyond the wardrobe door, a secret place frozen in eternal winter, a magical country waiting to be set free. Lucy is the first to find the secret of the wardrobe in the professor’s mysterious old house. At first her brothers and sister don’t believe her when she tells of her visit to the land of Narnia. But soon Edmund, then Peter and Susan step through the wardrobe themselves. In Narnia they find a country buried under the evil enchantment of the White Witch. When they meet the Lion Aslan, they realize they’ve been called to a great adventure and bravely join the battle to free Narnia from the Witch’s sinister spell.’

3. Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak

‘This epic tale about the effects of the Russian Revolution and its aftermath on a bourgeois family was not published in the Soviet Union until 1987. One of the results of its publication in the West was Pasternak’s complete rejection by Soviet authorities; when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958 he was compelled to decline it. The book quickly became an international bestseller. Dr. Yury Zhivago, Pasternak’s alter ego, is a poet, philosopher, and physician whose life is disrupted by the war and by his love for Lara, the wife of a revolutionary. His artistic nature makes him vulnerable to the brutality and harshness of the Bolsheviks. The poems he writes constitute some of the most beautiful writing featured in the novel.’

4. Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

‘The classic novel of despair, forbidden emotions, and sexual undercurrents set against the austere New England countryside Ethan Frome works his unproductive farm and struggles to maintain a bearable existence with his difficult, suspicious and hypochondriac wife, Zeena. But when Zeena’s vivacious cousin enters their household as a hired girl, Ethan finds himself obsessed with her and with the possibilities for happiness she comes to represent. In one of American fiction’s finest and most intense narratives, Edith Wharton moves this ill-starred trio toward their tragic destinies. Different in both tone and theme from Wharton’s other works, Ethan Frome has become perhaps her most enduring and most widely read book.’

5. Winter Trees by Sylvia Plath (my own review)

I have read Sylvia Plath’s beautiful Winter Trees several times, and find fresh beauty on every reread. These poems were all written within the last nine months of her life. As always with poetry collections, I have collected together a few of my favourite excerpts or fragments from some of these stunning poems.

– From ‘The Rabbit Catcher’:
‘I tasted the malignity of the gorse,
Its black spikes,
The extreme unction of its yellow candle-flowers.
They had an efficiency, a great beauty,
And were extravagant, like torture.’

– From ‘By Candlelight’:
‘This is winter, this is night, small love -‘

– From ‘Lesbos’:
‘We should meet in another life, we should meet in air,
Me and you.’

– From ‘Three Women’:
‘What did my fingers do before they held him?
What did my heart do, with its love?’

6. The Palace of the Snow Queen: Winter Travels in Lapland by Barbara Sjoholm (my own review)

‘I was incredibly excited to read Barbara Sjoholm’s The Palace of the Snow Queen, in which she spends several winters in the Arctic Circle. Sjoholm’s entire account is vivid and fascinating; she brings to light so many elements of life in the far north, always with the utmost sensitivity for those who live there.

Throughout, Sjoholm writes about the Sami, tourism, custom and tradition, the Icehotel in Sweden, and ways to travel around, amongst a plethora of other things. She strongly demonstrates just how quickly times change, and how some centuries-old traditions are being dropped in favour of the necessity of tourism.

Everything has been so well researched here, not only with regard to her own experiences, but with insight by others who have explored the region in years past. Her narrative voice is incredibly engaging, and I learnt so much from her account. It was the perfect tome to read over the Christmas period, and has extended my wanderlust even further. The Palace of the Snow Queen is undoubtedly one of the best travelogues which I have ever read, and is a sheer transportative joy to settle down with during long winters’ nights.’

7. Wintering: How I Learned to Flourish When Life Became Frozen by Katherine May

‘Wintering is a poignant and comforting meditation on the fallow periods of life, times when we must retreat to care for and repair ourselves. Katherine May thoughtfully shows us how to come through these times with the wisdom of knowing that, like the seasons, our winters and summers are the ebb and flow of life.’

8. Wintering: A Season with Geese by Stephen Rutt (my full review can be found here)

‘The arrival of huge flocks of geese in the UK is one of the most evocative and powerful harbingers of winter; a vast natural phenomenon to capture the imagination. So Stephen Rutt found when he moved to Dumfries in the autumn of 2018, coinciding with the migration of thousands of pink-footed geese who spend their winter in the Firth. Thus begins an extraordinary odyssey. From his new surroundings in the north to the wide open spaces of his childhood home in the south, Stephen traces the lives and habits of the most common species of goose in the UK and explores the place they have in our culture, our history and, occasionally, on our festive table. Wintering takes you on a vivid tour of the in-between landscapes the geese inhabit, celebrating the short days, varied weathers and long nights of the season during which we share our home with these large, startling, garrulous and cooperative birds.’

I hope you have enjoyed my seasonal recommendations throughout the year. Also, let me know if you have any seasonal reads to recommend!

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Winter Reading Recommendations

The season is turning; trees are shedding leaves, the temperature is beginning to fall, and the Christmas decorations are already out in the shops.  That can only mean one thing; it’s time to crack out the hot water bottle, vat of hot chocolate, and a stack of suitably wintry books.  Below are eight recommendations which I think will be perfect to curl up with this winter.

1. Moominland Midwinter by Tove Jansson 9780312625412
‘Everyone knows the Moomins sleep through the winter. But this year, Moomintroll has woken up early. So while the rest of the family slumber, he decides to visit his favorite summer haunts. But all he finds is this strange white stuff. Even the sun is gone! Moomintroll is angry: whoever Winter is, she has some nerve. Determined to discover the truth about this most mysterious of all seasons, Moomintroll goes where no Moomin has gone before.’


2. A Winter Book by Tove Jansson
‘Drawn from youth and older age, and spanning most of the twentieth century, this newly translated selection provides a thrilling showcase of the great Finnish writer’s prose, scattered with insights and home truths. It has been selected and is introduced by Ali Smith. A Winter Book features 13 stories from Tove Jansson’s first book for adults,The Sculptor’s Daughter (1968) plus 7 of her most cherished later stories (from 1971 to 1996), translated into English and published here for the first time.’


97801413894003. Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton
‘Ethan Frome works his unproductive farm and struggles to maintain a bearable existence with his difficult, suspicious and hypochondriac wife, Zeena. But when Zeena’s vivacious cousin enters their household as a ‘hired girl’, Ethan finds himself obsessed with her and with the possibilities for happiness she comes to represent.’
4. Ariel by Sylvia Plath
‘The poems in Sylvia Plath’s Ariel, including many of her best-known such as ‘Lady Lazarus’, ‘Daddy’, ‘Edge’ and ‘Paralytic’, were all written between the publication in 1960 of Plath’s first book, The Colossus, and her death in 1963. “If the poems are despairing, vengeful and destructive, they are at the same time tender, open to things, and also unusually clever, sardonic, hardminded …’

5. If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino
‘Calvino’s masterpiece opens with a scene that’s reassuringly commonplace: apparently. Indeed, it’s taking place now. A reader goes into a bookshop to buy a book: not any book, but the latest Calvino, the book you are holding in your hands. Or is it? Are you the reader? Is this the book? Beware. All assumptions are dangerous on this most bewitching switch-back ride to the heart of storytelling.’

6. The Waves by Virginia Woolf 9780141182711
‘Tracing the lives of a group of friends, The Waves follows their development from childhood to youth and middle age. While social events, individual achievements and disappointments form its narrative, the novel is most remarkable for the rich poetic language that expresses the inner life of its characters: their aspirations, their triumphs and regrets, their awareness of unity and isolation. Separately and together, they query the relationship of past to present, and the meaning of life itself.’

97819060401857. The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
‘Rene is the concierge of a grand Parisian apartment building. She maintains a carefully constructed persona as someone uncultivated but reliable, in keeping with what she feels a concierge should be. But beneath this facade lies the real Rene: passionate about culture and the arts, and more knowledgeable in many ways than her employers with their outwardly successful but emotionally void lives. Down in her lodge, apart from weekly visits by her one friend Manuela, Rene lives with only her cat for company. Meanwhile, several floors up, twelve-year-old Paloma Josse is determined to avoid the pampered and vacuous future laid out for her, and decides to end her life on her thirteenth birthday. But unknown to them both, the sudden death of one of their privileged neighbours will dramatically alter their lives forever. By turns moving and hilarious, this unusual novel became the top-selling book in France in 2007.’

8. The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey (predictable, but I could not resist recommending this beautiful novel!)
‘A bewitching tale of heartbreak and hope set in 1920s Alaska, Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child was a top ten bestseller in hardback and paperback, and went on to be a Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Alaska, the 1920s. Jack and Mabel have staked everything on a fresh start in a remote homestead, but the wilderness is a stark place, and Mabel is haunted by the baby she lost many years before. When a little girl appears mysteriously on their land, each is filled with wonder, but also foreboding: is she what she seems, and can they find room in their hearts for her? Written with the clarity and vividness of the Russian fairy tale from which it takes its inspiration, The Snow Child is an instant classic.’

 

Purchase from The Book Depository

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Abandoned Books

Below are several more reviews of the books which I’ve begun but haven’t finished.

Love from Nancy by Nancy Mitford
I had originally intended to read <i>Love from Nancy</i> last December, when Nancy Mitford was my now defunct online book group’s monthly author.  I felt that it was a good volume to begin before I went on holiday, as it could be left whilst I was away and I wouldn’t have to try and remember the story, as it were.  I liked the way in which the book was split into sections, and that each was accompanied by a biographical introduction of sorts.  Despite this positive aspect, however, I was rather disappointed by the entire volume.  I thought that Mitford’s letters would be fascinating, but they all struck the same chord after a while.  Dare I say this?  A lot of the correspondence here was dull and frequently similar, and I believe that all but die-hard enthusiasts of the Mitfords and their lives would find the collection the same.  With regard to other letter collections which I’ve read recently, it lacks the enchantment of Beatrix Potter’s, the vivacity of Sylvia Plath’s, and the wit of Ted Hughes’.

Glimpses of the Moon and The Fruit of the Tree by Edith Wharton
I liked Wharton’s writing and descriptions in both of these books, but I struggle awfully with her characters.  They are so unlikeable, particularly within the situations in which they are thrown together.

The Odd Flamingo by Nina Bawden
I really enjoy Bawden’s writing on the whole, but of late, I have found a couple of her novels rather hit and miss.  This book was certainly a miss for me.  I found the introductory paragraphs relatively interesting, but the characters were stolid and the protagonist very sexist and patronising (although this is perhaps more to do with the time in which The Odd Flamingo was written, rather than what Bawden wished him to be like).  The storyline, on the whole, was rather dull, and Bawden does not present the male first person narrative perspective well in my opinion.

Crocodile on the Sandbank by Elizabeth Peters
I’ve read in several reviews that Amelia Peabody, the protagonist of this series of Elizabeth Peter’s, is incredibly difficult to like.  She is.  She is stubborn and sexist, and bases her entire life upon a series of ridiculous assumptions – for example, that a girl she comes across who has fainted on the street will be her travelling companion just like that, with no say so on her own part.  The telling of the story reminds one of wading through rather dull treacle, and even though the book is told from the first person perspective, it lacks both personality and empathy.  I am fascinated by Ancient Egypt, but I found this novel made the subject rather boring – something which I didn’t previously believe was possible.  I gave up on the book before I’d even reached the mystery.

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Sunday Snapshot: Five Marvellous Novellas

The following novellas have been wonderful, in terms of their plots, writing and characterisation. If you are a newcomer to the wonder and atmosphere which novellas pack into very few pages, you are sure to find something to delight you here.

1. Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote
Adorable, funny and filled with a marvellous protagonist, Holly Golightly.

2. Coraline by Neil Gaiman
Deliciously creepy, and just as wonderful for adults to read as it is for children.

Breakfast at Tiffany's (novella)

3. Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton
Wharton describes the bleakness of Massachusetts in the most stunning manner, and her plot is rather chilling.

4. The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery
A magical and lovely tale, which is sure to fill your head with a wealth of thoughts.

5. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
Steinbeck has created one of the most memorable stories and two of the most memorable characters I have ever come across here.