8

Most Popular Books Published in 2020

I love a good book list.  Although I have tried my best not to look at any for quite some time as my TBR lists are bursting at the seams, I could not resist perusing the Goodreads list of the most popular books published during 2020.  Although I read a lot of contemporary fiction, I had read just three of the 149 which appear here at the time of compiling this list.  Rather than write about those, all of which I found underwhelming (My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell, One of Us is Next by Karen M. McManus, and Mr Nobody by Catherine Steadman), I thought I would pick out ten books which pique my interest.

1. The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett 51791252._sx318_sy475_
The Vignes twin sisters will always be identical. But after growing up together in a small, southern black community and running away at age sixteen, it’s not just the shape of their daily lives that is different as adults, it’s everything: their families, their communities, their racial identities. Ten years later, one sister lives with her black daughter in the same southern town she once tried to escape. The other secretly passes for white, and her white husband knows nothing of her past. Still, even separated by so many miles and just as many lies, the fates of the twins remain intertwined. What will happen to the next generation, when their own daughters’ storylines intersect?  Weaving together multiple strands and generations of this family, from the Deep South to California, from the 1950s to the 1990s, Brit Bennett produces a story that is at once a riveting, emotional family story and a brilliant exploration of the American history of passing. Looking well beyond issues of race, The Vanishing Half considers the lasting influence of the past as it shapes a person’s decisions, desires, and expectations, and explores some of the multiple reasons and realms in which people sometimes feel pulled to live as something other than their origins.  As with her New York Times-bestselling debut The Mothers, Brit Bennett offers an engrossing page-turner about family and relationships that is immersive and provocative, compassionate and wise.

438349092. Long Bright River by Liz Moore
In a Philadelphia neighborhood rocked by the opioid crisis, two once-inseparable sisters find themselves at odds. One, Kacey, lives on the streets in the vise of addiction. The other, Mickey, walks those same blocks on her police beat. They don’t speak anymore, but Mickey never stops worrying about her sibling.  Then Kacey disappears, suddenly, at the same time that a mysterious string of murders begins in Mickey’s district, and Mickey becomes dangerously obsessed with finding the culprit–and her sister–before it’s too late.  Alternating its present-day mystery with the story of the sisters’ childhood and adolescence, Long Bright River is at once heart-pounding and heart-wrenching: a gripping suspense novel that is also a moving story of sisters, addiction, and the formidable ties that persist between place, family, and fate.’

3. The Sun Down Motel by Simone St. James 45885644
The secrets lurking in a rundown roadside motel ensnare a young woman, just as they did her aunt thirty-five years before, in this new atmospheric suspense novel from the national bestselling and award-winning author of The Broken Girls.  Upstate NY, 1982. Every small town like Fell, New York, has a place like the Sun Down Motel. Some customers are from out of town, passing through on their way to someplace better. Some are locals, trying to hide their secrets. Viv Delaney works as the night clerk to pay for her move to New York City. But something isn’t right at the Sun Down, and before long she’s determined to uncover all of the secrets hidden…’

51907346._sy475_4. All Adults Here by Emma Straub
When Astrid Strick witnesses a school bus accident in the center of town, it jostles loose a repressed memory from her young parenting days decades earlier. Suddenly, Astrid realizes she was not quite the parent she thought she’d been to her three, now-grown children. But to what consequence?  Astrid’s youngest son is drifting and unfocused, making parenting mistakes of his own. Her daughter is intentionally pregnant yet struggling to give up her own adolescence. And her eldest seems to measure his adult life according to standards no one else shares. But who gets to decide, so many years later, which long-ago lapses were the ones that mattered? Who decides which apologies really count? It might be that only Astrid’s thirteen-year-old granddaughter and her new friend really understand the courage it takes to tell the truth to the people you love the most.  In All Adults Here, Emma Straub’s unique alchemy of wisdom, humor, and insight come together in a deeply satisfying story about adult siblings, aging parents, high school boyfriends, middle school mean girls, the lifelong effects of birth order, and all the other things that follow us into adulthood, whether we like them to or not.’

5. Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia 53152636._sx318_sy475_
After receiving a frantic letter from her newly-wed cousin begging for someone to save her from a mysterious doom, Noemí Taboada heads to High Place, a distant house in the Mexican countryside. She’s not sure what she will find—her cousin’s husband, a handsome Englishman, is a stranger, and Noemí knows little about the region.   Noemí is also an unlikely rescuer: She’s a glamorous debutante, and her chic gowns and perfect red lipstick are more suited for cocktail parties than amateur sleuthing. But she’s also tough and smart, with an indomitable will, and she is not afraid: Not of her cousin’s new husband, who is both menacing and alluring; not of his father, the ancient patriarch who seems to be fascinated by Noemí; and not even of the house itself, which begins to invade Noemi’s dreams with visions of blood and doom.  Her only ally in this inhospitable abode is the family’s youngest son. Shy and gentle, he seems to want to help Noemí, but might also be hiding dark knowledge of his family’s past. For there are many secrets behind the walls of High Place. The family’s once colossal wealth and faded mining empire kept them from prying eyes, but as Noemí digs deeper she unearths stories of violence and madness.   And Noemí, mesmerized by the terrifying yet seductive world of High Place, may soon find it impossible to ever leave this enigmatic house behind.’

375062286. Weather by Jenny Offill
Lizzie Benson slid into her job as a librarian without a traditional degree. But this gives her a vantage point from which to practice her other calling: she is a fake shrink. For years she has tended to her God-haunted mother and her recovering addict brother. They have both stabilized for the moment, but Lizzie has little chance to spend her new free time with husband and son before her old mentor, Sylvia Liller, makes a proposal. She’s become famous for her prescient podcast, Hell and High Water, and wants to hire Lizzie to answer the mail she receives: from left-wingers worried about climate change and right-wingers worried about the decline of western civilization. As Lizzie dives into this polarized world, she begins to wonder what it means to keep tending your own garden once you’ve seen the flames beyond its walls. When her brother becomes a father and Sylvia a recluse, Lizzie is forced to address the limits of her own experience–but still she tries to save everyone, using everything she’s learned about empathy and despair, conscience and collusion, from her years of wandering the library stacks . . . And all the while the voices of the city keep floating in–funny, disturbing, and increasingly mad.

7. Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas 51934838
‘Catherine House is a school of higher learning like no other. Hidden deep in the woods of rural Pennsylvania, this crucible of reformist liberal arts study with its experimental curriculum, wildly selective admissions policy, and formidable endowment, has produced some of the world’s best minds: prize-winning authors, artists, inventors, Supreme Court justices, presidents. For those lucky few selected, tuition, room, and board are free. But acceptance comes with a price. Students are required to give the House three years—summers included—completely removed from the outside world. Family, friends, television, music, even their clothing must be left behind. In return, the school promises its graduates a future of sublime power and prestige, and that they can become anything or anyone they desire.  Among this year’s incoming class is Ines, who expects to trade blurry nights of parties, pills, cruel friends, and dangerous men for rigorous intellectual discipline—only to discover an environment of sanctioned revelry. The school’s enigmatic director, Viktória, encourages the students to explore, to expand their minds, to find themselves and their place within the formidable black iron gates of Catherine.  For Ines, Catherine is the closest thing to a home she’s ever had, and her serious, timid roommate, Baby, soon becomes an unlikely friend. Yet the House’s strange protocols make this refuge, with its worn velvet and weathered leather, feel increasingly like a gilded prison. And when Baby’s obsessive desire for acceptance ends in tragedy, Ines begins to suspect that the school—in all its shabby splendor, hallowed history, advanced theories, and controlled decadence—might be hiding a dangerous agenda that is connected to a secretive, tightly knit group of students selected to study its most promising and mysterious curriculum.  Combining the haunting sophistication and dusky, atmospheric style of Sarah Waters with the unsettling isolation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, Catherine House is a devious, deliciously steamy, and suspenseful page-turner with shocking twists and sharp edges that is sure to leave readers breathless.’

459927178. The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel
England, May 1536. Anne Boleyn is dead, decapitated in the space of a heartbeat by a hired French executioner. As her remains are bundled into oblivion, Thomas Cromwell breakfasts with the victors. The blacksmith’s son from Putney emerges from the spring’s bloodbath to continue his climb to power and wealth, while his formidable master, Henry VIII, settles to short-lived happiness with his third queen before Jane dies giving birth to the male heir he most craves.  Cromwell is a man with only his wits to rely on; he has no great family to back him, no private army. Despite rebellion at home, traitors plotting abroad and the threat of invasion testing Henry’s regime to the breaking point, Cromwell’s robust imagination sees a new country in the mirror of the future. But can a nation, or a person, shed the past like a skin? Do the dead continually unbury themselves? What will you do, the Spanish ambassador asks Cromwell, when the king turns on you, as sooner or later he turns on everyone close to him?  With The Mirror & the Light, Hilary Mantel brings to a triumphant close the trilogy she began with Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. She traces the final years of Thomas Cromwell, the boy from nowhere who climbs to the heights of power, offering a defining portrait of predator and prey, of a ferocious contest between present and past, between royal will and a common man’s vision: of a modern nation making itself through conflict, passion, and courage.’

9. If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha 52696537._sy475_
Kyuri is a heartbreakingly beautiful woman with a hard-won job at a “room salon,” an exclusive bar where she entertains businessmen while they drink. Though she prides herself on her cold, clear-eyed approach to life, an impulsive mistake with a client may come to threaten her livelihood.  Her roomate, Miho, is a talented artist who grew up in an orphanage but won a scholarship to study art in New York. Returning to Korea after college, she finds herself in a precarious relationship with the super-wealthy heir to one of Korea’s biggest companies.  Down the hall in their apartment building lives Ara, a hair stylist for whom two preoccupations sustain her: obsession with a boy-band pop star, and a best friend who is saving up for the extreme plastic surgery that is commonplace.  And Wonna, one floor below, is a newlywed trying to get pregnant with a child that she and her husband have no idea how they can afford to raise and educate in the cutthroat economy.  Together, their stories tell a gripping tale that’s seemingly unfamiliar, yet unmistakably universal in the way that their tentative friendships may have to be their saving grace.’

5017541910. Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan
Ava moved to Hong Kong to find happiness, but so far, it isn’t working out. Since she left Dublin, she’s been spending her days teaching English to rich children—she’s been assigned the grammar classes because she lacks warmth—and her nights avoiding petulant roommates in her cramped apartment.  When Ava befriends Julian, a witty British banker, he offers a shortcut into a lavish life her meager salary could never allow. Ignoring her feminist leanings and her better instincts, Ava finds herself moving into Julian’s apartment, letting him buy her clothes, and, eventually, striking up a sexual relationship with him. When Julian’s job takes him back to London, she stays put, unsure where their relationship stands.  Enter Edith. A Hong Kong–born lawyer, striking and ambitious, Edith takes Ava to the theater and leaves her tulips in the hallway. Ava wants to be her—and wants her. Ava has been carefully pretending that Julian is nothing more than an absentee roommate, so when Julian announces that he’s returning to Hong Kong, she faces a fork in the road. Should she return to the easy compatibility of her life with Julian or take a leap into the unknown with Edith?  Politically alert, heartbreakingly raw, and dryly funny, Exciting Times is thrillingly attuned to the great freedoms and greater uncertainties of modern love. In stylish, uncluttered prose, Naoise Dolan dissects the personal and financial transactions that make up a life—and announces herself as a singular new voice.

Which of these books have you read, and which 2020 release was your favourite?

1

Ten Really Underrated Books

I love perusing Goodreads lists, and although I have made one or two about highly underrated books before, I thought I would pick out another ten titles from this list, entitled ‘Really, Really Underrated Books’.  Each of the books on this list, which is compiled of fiction and non-fiction, has less than 100 ratings.  I have chosen titles which have piqued my interest, and which I’d like to read soon.

 

27963181. The Feminine Middlebrow Novel, 1920s to 1950s: Class, Domesticity, and Bohemianism by Nicola Humble
‘”Middlebrow” has always been a dirty word, used disparagingly since its coinage in the mid-1920s for the sort of literature thought to be too easy, insular and smug. Aiming to rehabilitate the feminine middlebrow, Nicola Humble argues that the novels of writers such as Rosamund Lehmann, Elizabeth Taylor, Stella Gibbons, Nancy Mitford, played a powerful role in establishing and consolidating, but also in resisting, new class and gender identities in this period of volatile change for both women and the middle classes.’

 

2. The Misses Mallett by E.H. Young 3875872
‘She sat there, vividly conscious of herself, and sometimes she saw the whole room as a picture and she was part of it; sometimes she saw only those three whose lives, she felt, were practically over, for even Aunt Rose was comparatively old. She pitied them because their romance was past, while hers waited for her outside; she wondered at their happiness, their interest in their appearance, their pleasure in parties; but she felt most sorry for Aunt Rose, midway between what should have been the resignation of her stepsisters and the glowing anticipation of her niece.’

 

1067212._sx318_3. East of the Sun: The Epic Conquest and Tragic History of Siberia by Benson Bobrick
‘In sweep, color & grandeur, the conquest & settlement of Siberia compares with the winning of the American West. It’s the greatest pioneering story in history, uniquely combining the heroic colonization of an intractable virgin land, the ghastly dangers & high adventure of Arctic exploration, & the grimmest saga of penal servitude. 400 years of continual human striving chart its course, a drama of unremitting extremes & elemental confrontations, pitting man against nature, & man against man. East of the Sun, a work of panoramic scope, is the 1st complete account of this strange & terrible story. To most Westerners, Siberia is a vast & mysterious place. The richest resource area on the face of the earth, its land mass covers 5 million square miles-7.5% of the total land surface of the globe. From the 1st foray in 1581 across the Ural Mountains by a band of Cossack outlaws to the fall of Gorbachev, East of the Sun is history on a grand scale. With vivid immediacy, Bobrick describes the often brutal subjugation of Siberia’s aboriginal tribes & the cultures that were destroyed; the great 18th-century explorations that defined Siberia’s borders & Russia’s attempt to “extend” Siberia further with settlements in Alaska, California & Hawaii; & the transformation of Siberia into a penal colony for criminal & political exiles, an experiment more terrible than Australia’s Botany Bay. There’s the building of the stupendous Trans-Siberian Railway across 7 time zones; Siberia’s key role in the bloody aftermath of the October Revolution in 1917; & Stalin’s dreaded Gulag, which corrupted its very soil. Today, Siberia is the hope of Russia’s future, now that all her appended republic have broken away. Its story has never been more timely.’

 

4. Death in Leamington by David Smith 23499091
Death in Leamington is more than a crime story; it is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. Set in the genteel Regency town of Royal Leamington Spa, the murder of an elderly foreign visitor sets off an intricate chain of events, surprising literary encounters and one too many unexplained and gruesome deaths. Inspector Hunter and his new assistant DC Penny Dore race to solve the murders, but as the body count mounts and each new lead evaporates; Hunter becomes more and more convinced that there are darker forces involved.  Death in Leamington will appeal both to those who enjoy solving a crime mystery and those with an interest in history, art and music. The story is a celebration of the literary and folk heritage of this elegant Warwickshire town, incorporating many of the characters from its history, and a few literary ghosts from its past, including quotations from works as diverse as The Faerie Queene, The Scarlett Letter, Alice in Wonderland and even Shakespeare’s Queen Mab puts in an appearance.’

 

10418555. Out of the Woodshed: A Portrait of Stella Gibbons by Reggie Oliver
‘Born into an Irish family in Hampstead where she lived for most of her life, Stella Gibbons is probably best remembered for her book Cold Comfort Farm. Written by her nephew, this biography of the novelist and poet draws on her personal papers including two unpublished novels.’

 

6. The Family Mashber by Der Nister 2376113
The Family Mashber is a protean work: a tale of a divided family and divided souls, a panoramic picture of an Eastern European town, a social satire, a kabbalistic allegory, an innovative fusion of modernist art and traditional storytelling, a tale of weird humor and mounting tragic power, embellished with a host of uncanny and fantastical figures drawn from daily life and the depths of the unconscious. Above all, the book is an account of a world in crisis (in Hebrew, mashber means crisis), torn between the competing claims of family, community, business, politics, the individual conscience, and an elusive God.  At the center of the book are three brothers: the businessman Moshe, at the height of his fortunes as the story begins, but whose luck takes a permanent turn for the worse; the religious seeker Luzi, who, for all his otherworldliness, finds himself ever more caught up in worldly affairs; and the idiot-savant Alter, whose reclusive existence is tortured by fear and sexual desire. The novel is also haunted by the enigmatic figure of Sruli Gol, a drunk, a profaner of sacred things, an outcast, who nonetheless finds his way through every door and may well hold the key to the brothers’ destinies.’

 

932597. Carson McCullers: A Life by Josyane Savigneau
‘In Carson McCullers: A Life, Josyane Savigneau gives us at last a truly popular biography of one of America’s greatest women novelists. Carson McCullers’s life story rivals the plot of any of her novels. A brilliant, sensitive artist who had a painful small-town childhood in the South and early international success, she was crippled by a mysterious disease in early adulthood. A woman who composed the most romantic of letters, she struggled to find lasting happiness with her husband, Reeves, whom she married twice. Carson wrote often of the loneliness of the human condiiton, and yet she surrounded herself with a constellation of witty, always entertaining celebrities: Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, Katherine Anne Porter, Richard Wright, John Huston, and Edward Albee, among others.  The first biographer to have the full cooperation of the McCullers esate, Josyane Savigneau has uncovered the private Carson McCullers, a woman who never really grew up yet was always seductive, a woman whose candor and immense emotional needs sometimes overshadowed her great charm, generosity, loyalty, humor, and deep intelligence. Above all, Carson was a life force, a person who needed to write and who did so despite great physical pain, up until the very end. Published to rave reviews in France’

 

9780140050301-us8. A Place Apart by Dervla Murphy
‘At the height of The Troubles, Dervla Murphy cycled to Northern Ireland to try to understand the situation by speaking to people on either side of the divide. She also sought to interrogate her own opinions and emotions. As an Irishwoman and traveller who had only ever spent thirty-six hours of her forty-four years over the border to the north, why had she been so reluctant to engage with the issues? Despite her own family connections to the IRA, she travelled north largely unfettered by sectarian loyalties. Armed instead with an indefatigable curiosity, a fine ear for anecdote, an ability to stand her own at the bar and a penetrating intelligence, she navigated her way through horrifying situations, and sometimes found herself among people stiff with hate and grief. But equally, she discovered an unquenchable thirst for life and peace, a spirit that refused to die.’

 

25473286._sy475_9. My Buried Life by Doreen Finn
‘What happens when you no longer recognise the person you have become?   Eva has managed to spend her twenties successfully hiding from herself in New York.   Attempting to write, but really only writing her epitaph, she returns to Ireland to confront the past that has made her what she is.   In prose that is hauntingly beautiful and delicate, Doreen Finn explores a truly complex and fascinating character with deft style and unflinching honesty.’

 

10. Queen’s Folly by Elswyth Thane 8783728
‘When Queen Elizabeth I rewards an ardent courtier with an old priory in the Cotswolds for his services, it has a profound effect on him and his male descendants as they transfer their devotion to their home in this unusual and romantic novel. Follows this family from the 16th to the 20th century.’

Which of these books have you read?  Which are your favourite underrated books?

0

A List: ‘Books with Sugar in the Title’

Am I the only one who likes to find book lists on Goodreads with quite obscure titles?  I have found some great books in the past thanks to them, and although I’m trying not to grow my enormous to-read list too much at the moment, I just couldn’t resist clicking on this list, enticingly titled ‘Books with Sugar in the Title’.  I have pulled out eight books from the list which pique my interest, and which I would like to get to soon.

 

1. Sugar Hall by Tiffany Murray 20660874
Easter 1955. As Lilia Sugar scrapes the ice from the inside of the windows and the rust from the locks in Sugar Hall, she knows there are pasts she cannot erase. On the very edge of the English/Welsh border, the red gardens of Sugar Hall hold a secret, and as Britain prepares for its last hanging, Lilia and her children must confront a history that has been buried but not forgotten. Based on the stories of the Black Boy that surround Littledean Hall in the Forest of Dean, this is a superbly chilling ghost story from Tiffany Murray.’

 

242022752. Sugar by Deirdre Riordan Hall
Sugar Legowski-Gracia wasn’t always fat, but fat is what she is now at age seventeen. Not as fat as her mama, who is so big she hasn’t gotten out of bed in months. Not as heavy as her brother, Skunk, who has more meanness in him than fat, which is saying something. But she’s large enough to be the object of ridicule wherever she is: at the grocery store, walking down the street, at school. Sugar’s life is dictated by taking care of Mama in their run-down home—cooking, shopping, and, well, eating. A lot of eating, which Sugar hates as much as she loves.  When Sugar meets Even (not Evan—his nearly illiterate father misspelled his name on the birth certificate), she has the new experience of someone seeing her and not her body. As their unlikely friendship builds, Sugar allows herself to think about the future for the first time, a future not weighed down by her body or her mother.  Soon Sugar will have to decide whether to become the girl that Even helps her see within herself or to sink into the darkness of the skin-deep role her family and her life have created for her.’

 

3. In Watermelon Sugar by Richard Brautigan 46182
‘iDEATH is a place where the sun shines a different colour every day and where people travel to the length of their dreams. Rejecting the violence and hate of the old gang at the Forgotten Works, they lead gentle lives in watermelon sugar. In this book, Richard Brautigan discovers and expresses the mood of the counterculture generation.’

 

116482614. The Sugar Queen by Sarah Addison Allen
‘Twenty-seven-year-old Josey is sure of three things: winter in her North Carolina hometown is her favorite season; she’s a sorry excuse for a Southern belle; and sweets are best eaten in the privacy of her hidden closet. For while Josey has settled into an uneventful life in her mother’s house, her one consolation is the stockpile of sugary treats and paperback romances she escapes to each night …Until she finds her closet harboring none other than local waitress Della Lee Baker, a tough-talking, tender-hearted woman who is one part nemesis – and two parts fairy godmother …’

 

5. The House at Sugar Beach by Helene Cooper 2643182
‘Journalist Helene Cooper examines the violent past of her home country Liberia and the effects of its 1980 military coup in this deeply personal memoir and finalist for the 2008 National Book Critics Circle Award.  Helene Cooper is “Congo,” a descendant of two Liberian dynasties—traced back to the first ship of freemen that set sail from New York in 1820 to found Monrovia. Helene grew up at Sugar Beach, a twenty-two-room mansion by the sea. Her childhood was filled with servants, flashy cars, a villa in Spain, and a farmhouse up-country. It was also an African childhood, filled with knock foot games and hot pepper soup, heartmen and neegee. When Helene was eight, the Coopers took in a foster child—a common custom among the Liberian elite. Eunice, a Bassa girl, suddenly became known as “Mrs. Cooper’s daughter.”  For years the Cooper daughters—Helene, her sister Marlene, and Eunice—blissfully enjoyed the trappings of wealth and advantage. But Liberia was like an unwatched pot of water left boiling on the stove. And on April 12, 1980, a group of soldiers staged a coup d’état, assassinating President William Tolbert and executing his cabinet. The Coopers and the entire Congo class were now the hunted, being imprisoned, shot, tortured, and raped. After a brutal daylight attack by a ragtag crew of soldiers, Helene, Marlene, and their mother fled Sugar Beach, and then Liberia, for America. They left Eunice behind.  A world away, Helene tried to assimilate as an American teenager. At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill she found her passion in journalism, eventually becoming a reporter for the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. She reported from every part of the globe—except Africa—as Liberia descended into war-torn, third-world hell.  In 2003, a near-death experience in Iraq convinced Helene that Liberia—and Eunice—could wait no longer. At once a deeply personal memoir and an examination of a violent and stratified country, The House at Sugar Beach tells of tragedy, forgiveness, and transcendence with unflinching honesty and a survivor’s gentle humor. And at its heart, it is a story of Helene Cooper’s long voyage home.’

 

387461666. Sugar Run by Mesha Maren
‘In 1989, Jodi McCarty is seventeen years old when she’s sentenced to life in prison for manslaughter. She’s released eighteen years later and finds herself at a Greyhound bus stop, reeling from the shock of unexpected freedom. Not yet able to return to her lost home in the Appalachian mountains, she goes searching for someone she left behind, but on the way, she meets and falls in love with Miranda, a troubled young mother. Together, they try to make a fresh start, but is that even possible in a town that refuses to change?   Set within the charged insularity of rural West Virginia, Sugar Run is a searing and gritty debut about making a run for another life.’

 

7. A Spoonful of Sugar: A Nanny’s Story by Brenda Ashford 15798336
‘From Britain’s beloved oldest living nanny comes a charming and uplifting memoir of a real-life Mary Poppins.  In her extraordinary memoir, Brenda Ashford shares her endearing and amusing experiences as a British nanny caring for generations of children over the past sixty-two years.  Brenda’s lifelong love for children began the minute she laid eyes on her baby brother, David. As a teenager, she applied to London’s Norland College, famous for producing top-class nannies, and, after a grueling interview, she was accepted on scholarship. It was a radical change from her idyllic country life in the village of Surrey. The training was rigorous and discipline strictly enforced, as Brenda and her classmates scrambled to pass inspections on everything from morality and neatness to needlework and pram pushing. Meanwhile, World War II began, and Brenda’s heart was broken twice. She vowed never to fall for a man again and devoted her life to caring for other people’s children, never having any of her own.  Brenda’s memoir offers readers an enticing glimpse into the joys, frustrations, adventures, and mishaps of children of all ages and situations. She peppers her story with delightful bits of cultural history and timeless life lessons. A Spoonful of Sugar is an irresistible Mary Poppins story that will touch your heart and remind you of what is truly important in life.’

 

1655378. Sugar Cage by Connie May Fowler
‘The story of the Looneys and the Jewels, two families fiercely bound to each other–as well as to the soil and sensibility of the modern South. An unforgettable tale about everyday people searching for a history and a heritage that can explain who they are.’

 

Which is your favourite book with sugar in the title?  Are you intrigued by any of the books on my list?  Have you read any of them?

0

Most-Read Authors

I may be a little behind the times with this, but I have just noticed a tool on Goodreads which generates a list of your ‘Most-Read Authors’.  I was intrigued to see who would be at the top of mine, and so decided to click on it.

06b7c0701dd611e4b31289e120a0572b_author

Jacqueline Wilson

I was quite surprised, in a way, at the numbers of books which I have read by the same authors; my ‘Most-Read’ of these is Jacqueline Wilson, with 56 books on my shelf.  I adored her work when I was younger, and made sure that I saved my pocket money up to buy each of her hardbacks as soon as they were released.

 

 

Whilst my Goodreads shelves are not as comprehensive as other people’s, and certainly miss out a lot of the tomes which I read as a child and teenager, it still seems that children’s authors dominate my list.  Second on my list was Enid Blyton, with 42 books (and I am certain that I have read much more than this of her oeuvre), and third Roald Dahl, with 41 books.

Only my fourth author is one who wrote solely for adults; it is, perhaps unsurprisingly,

3245913-large-56a5fee55f9b58b7d0df6439

Agatha Christie

Virginia Woolf, who has 38 read books on my shelves.  Fifth is Agatha Christie with 35, sixth Daphne du Maurier with 31, and seventh William Shakespeare with 26 (again, I have read many more of his plays than this).  Tove Jansson comes in eighth place with 25 books on my shelf, Carol Ann Duffy has 24, and F. Scott Fitzgerald 22.

 

I have copied part of the list out below, and will be interested to see if it changes much in the next few years.

11. Ali Smith (19)
12. Jeanette Winterson, Elizabeth Taylor, Lemony Snicket, Muriel Spark (16)

elizabeth-taylor1-e1301743546623

Elizabeth Taylor

13. May Sinclair, Katherine Mansfield, Nina Bawden, Dick King-Smith, Janet Ahlberg (15)
14. Rudyard Kipling, Alice Hoffman, Alice Munro, Mary Stewart, Elizabeth von Arnim (14)
15. Arthur Conan Doyle, Astrid Lindgren, Oscar Wilde (13)
16. Nick Hornby, Tennessee Williams, Rumer Godden, Helen Dunmore, Sylvia Plath (12)
17. Vita Sackville-West, Truman Capote, John Steinbeck, C.S. Lewis, Hilary Mantel, Stephen Fry, Angela Carter, Charles Dickens, Terry Deary (11)
18. Kate Atkinson, Jane Austen, J.K. Rowling, Louise Rennison, Colette, Dr. Seuss, Margaret Atwood (10)
19. Irene Nemirovsky, Penelope Fitzgerald, Penelope Lively, Susan Hill, A. A. Milne,

Fyodor Dostoevsky, Catherynne M. Valente, Anita Brookner, E.M. Delafield, Shirley Jackson, Judith Kerr, Marjane Satrapi, Winifred Holtby (9)

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A. A. Milne

20. Willa Cather, Alan Bradley, Carol Shields, Esther Freud, Neil Gaiman, Elizabeth Gaskell, Thomas Hardy, Ted Hughes, Bryan Lee O’Malley, Jodi Picoult, Maggie O’Farrell, Henry James, Wilkie Collins, Carson McCullers, Lewis Carroll (8)

 

 

Who are your most read authors?  Do we have any in common?

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Deciding What to Review

Today’s post is more of a discussion.  I keep a reading journal, and write short reviews of everything which I read, and which I then copy onto my Goodreads account.  Some of these reviews only end up being a few sentences long; others are far more comprehensive, and are cross-posted here.

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Image from tumblr.com

I was wondering the following of my fellow bloggers: how you decide what to review and feature on your blog?  Do you write comprehensive reviews for every book which you read, or do you have an agenda in mind when picking up certain books?  Are there any books which you’ve looked forward to reviewing, but which have fallen short in some way?  Do you also use Goodreads as a reviewing tool?

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Summertime List: Books About Gardens

I stumbled upon a Goodreads list – as any user inevitably does at one point or another whilst browsing the vast site – and thought that it would be a perfect one to transcribe for the blog. Whilst I haven’t read many of these books (those which I have read are followed by my star rating), they all sound wonderful, and are undoubtedly perfect choices for this time of year.  The following are about the garden rather than the practice of gardening; they evoke old England, and the charm of admiring what one has planted.  I have focused only upon the first fifteen (and therefore the most popular) books voted for on this list; you can see the rest of it here.  For each, I have added the blurb as shown on Goodreads.

1. The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett ***** 231815
When orphaned Mary Lennox comes to live at her uncle’s great house on the Yorkshire Moors, she finds it full of secrets. The mansion has nearly one hundred rooms, and her uncle keeps himself locked up. And at night, she hears the sound of crying down one of the long corridors.  The gardens surrounding the large property are Mary’s only escape. Then, Mary discovers a secret garden, surrounded by walls and locked with a missing key. One day, with the help of two unexpected companions, she discovers a way in. Is everything in the garden dead, or can Mary bring it back to life?

 

2. The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton *****
A foundling, an old book of dark fairy tales, a secret garden, an aristocratic family, a love denied, and a mystery. The Forgotten Garden is a captivating, atmospheric and compulsively readable story of the past, secrets, family and memory from the international best-selling author Kate Morton.  Cassandra is lost, alone and grieving. Her much loved grandmother, Nell, has just died and Cassandra, her life already shaken by a tragic accident ten years ago, feels like she has lost everything dear to her. But an unexpected and mysterious bequest from Nell turns Cassandra’s life upside down and ends up challenging everything she thought she knew about herself and her family.  Inheriting a book of dark and intriguing fairytales written by Eliza Makepeace—the Victorian authoress who disappeared mysteriously in the early twentieth century—Cassandra takes her courage in both hands to follow in the footsteps of Nell on a quest to find out the truth about their history, their family and their past; little knowing that in the process, she will also discover a new life for herself.

 

14702453. Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce ***
Lying awake at night, Tom hears the old grandfather clock downstairs strike . . . eleven . . . twelve . . . thirteen . . . Thirteen! When Tom gets up to investigate, he discovers a magical garden. A garden that everyone told him doesn’t exist. A garden that only he can enter . . .

 

4. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt
Voodoo. Decadent socialites packing Lugars. Cotillions. With towns like Savannah, Georgia, who needs Fellini? Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil takes two narrative strands–each worthy of its own book–and weaves them together to make a single fascinating tale. The first is author John Berendt’s loving depiction of the characters and rascals that prowled Savannah in the eight years it was his home-away-from-home. “Eccentrics thrive in Savannah,” he writes, and proves the point by introducing Luther Diggers, a thwarted inventor who just might be plotting to poison the town’s water supply; Joe Odom, a jovial jackleg lawyer and squatter nonpareil; and, most memorably, the Lady Chablis, whom you really should meet for yourself. Then, on May 2, 1981, the book’s second story line commences, when Jim Williams, a wealthy antique dealer and Savannah’s host with the most, kills his “friend” Danny Hansford. (If those quotes make you suspect something, you should.) Was it self-defense, as Williams claimed–or murder? The book sketches four separate trials, during which the dark side of this genteel party town is well and truly plumbed.

 

5. Mansfield Park by Jane Austen *** 11758562
Taken from the poverty of her parents’ home, Fanny Price is brought up with her rich cousins at Mansfield Park, acutely aware of her humble rank and with only her cousin Edmund as an ally. When Fanny’s uncle is absent in Antigua, Mary Crawford and her brother Henry arrive in the neighbourhood, bringing with them London glamour and a reckless taste for flirtation. As her female cousins vie for Henry’s attention, and even Edmund falls for Mary’s dazzling charms, only Fanny remains doubtful about the Crawfords’ influence and finds herself more isolated than ever. A subtle examination of social position and moral integrity, Mansfield Park is one of Jane Austen’s most profound works.

 

6. Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen ***
The women of the Waverley family — whether they like it or not — are heirs to an unusual legacy, one that grows in a fenced plot behind their Queen Anne home on Pendland Street in Bascom, North Carolina. There, an apple tree bearing fruit of magical properties looms over a garden filled with herbs and edible flowers that possess the power to affect in curious ways anyone who eats them.   For nearly a decade, 34-year-old Claire Waverley, at peace with her family inheritance, has lived in the house alone, embracing the spirit of the grandmother who raised her, ruing her mother’s unfortunate destiny and seemingly unconcerned about the fate of her rebellious sister, Sydney, who freed herself long ago from their small town’s constraints. Using her grandmother’s mystical culinary traditions, Claire has built a successful catering business — and a carefully controlled, utterly predictable life — upon the family’s peculiar gift for making life-altering delicacies: lilac jelly to engender humility, for instance, or rose geranium wine to call up fond memories. Garden Spells reveals what happens when Sydney returns to Bascom with her young daughter, turning Claire’s routine existence upside down. With Sydney’s homecoming, the magic that the quiet caterer has measured into recipes to shape the thoughts and moods of others begins to influence Claire’s own emotions in terrifying and delightful ways.  As the sisters reconnect and learn to support one another, each finds romance where she least expects it, while Sydney’s child, Bay, discovers both the safe home she has longed for and her own surprising gifts. With the help of their elderly cousin Evanelle, endowed with her own uncanny skills, the Waverley women redeem the past, embrace the present, and take a joyful leap into the future.

 

113172897. Elizabeth and Her German Garden by Elizabeth von Arnim *****
“Elizabeth and Her German Garden,” a novel by Elizabeth von Arnim, was popular and frequently reprinted during the early years of the 20th century. “Elizabeth and Her German Garden” is a year’s diary written by Elizabeth about her experiences learning gardening and interacting with her friends. It includes commentary on the beauty of nature and on society, but is primarily humorous due to Elizabeth’s frequent mistakes and her idiosyncratic outlook on life. The story is full of sweet, endearing moments. Elizabeth was an avid reader and has interesting comments on where certain authors are best read; she tells charming stories of her children and has a sometimes sharp sense of humor in regards to the people who will come and disrupt her solitary lifestyle.

 

8. A Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson
All the joys and sorrows, fears and fantasies of an imaginative solitary child are brought together in this edition of a much-loved classic. Stevenson’s timeless verses bear witness to a happy childhood and create a treasure garden for every child to explore.

 

9. The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh ***** 10032672
A mesmerizing, moving, and elegantly written debut novel, The Language of Flowers beautifully weaves past and present, creating a vivid portrait of an unforgettable woman whose gift for flowers helps her change the lives of others even as she struggles to overcome her own troubled past.  The Victorian language of flowers was used to convey romantic expressions: honeysuckle for devotion, asters for patience, and red roses for love. But for Victoria Jones, it’s been more useful in communicating grief, mistrust, and solitude. After a childhood spent in the foster-care system, she is unable to get close to anybody, and her only connection to the world is through flowers and their meanings.  Now eighteen and emancipated from the system, Victoria has nowhere to go and sleeps in a public park, where she plants a small garden of her own. Soon a local florist discovers her talents, and Victoria realizes she has a gift for helping others through the flowers she chooses for them. But a mysterious vendor at the flower market has her questioning what’s been missing in her life, and when she’s forced to confront a painful secret from her past, she must decide whether it’s worth risking everything for a second chance at happiness.

 

10. The Constant Gardener by John Le Carre
The Constant Gardener is a magnificent exploration of the new world order by one of the most compelling and elegant storytellers of our time. The novel opens in northern Kenya with the gruesome murder of Tessa Quayle–young, beautiful, and dearly beloved to husband Justin. When Justin sets out on a personal odyssey to uncover the mystery of her death, what he finds could make him not only a suspect among his own colleagues, but a target for Tessa’s killers as well.   A master chronicler of the betrayals of ordinary people caught in political conflict, John le Carre portrays the dark side of unbridled capitalism as only he can. In The Constant Gardener he tells a compelling, complex story of a man elevated through tragedy as Justin Quayle–amateur gardener, aging widower, and ineffectual bureaucrat–discovers his own natural resources and the extraordinary courage of the woman he barely had time to love.

 

1383911. The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World by Michael Pollan
Every schoolchild learns about the mutually beneficial dance of honeybees and flowers: The bee collects nectar and pollen to make honey and, in the process, spreads the flowers’ genes far and wide. In The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan ingeniously demonstrates how people and domesticated plants have formed a similarly reciprocal relationship. He masterfully links four fundamental human desires—sweetness, beauty, intoxication, and control—with the plants that satisfy them: the apple, the tulip, marijuana, and the potato. In telling the stories of four familiar species, Pollan illustrates how the plants have evolved to satisfy humankind’s most basic yearnings. And just as we’ve benefited from these plants, we have also done well by them. So who is really domesticating whom?

 

12. The Samurai’s Garden by Gail Tsukiyama
A 20-year-old Chinese painter named Stephen is sent to his family’s summer home in a Japanese coastal village to recover from a bout with tuberculosis. Here he is cared for by Matsu, a reticent housekeeper and a master gardener. Over the course of a remarkable year, Stephen learns Matsu’s secret and gains not only physical strength, but also profound spiritual insight. Matsu is a samurai of the soul, a man devoted to doing good and finding beauty in a cruel and arbitrary world, and Stephen is a noble student, learning to appreciate Matsu’s generous and nurturing way of life and to love Matsu’s soul-mate, gentle Sachi, a woman afflicted with leprosy.

 

13. The Virgin in the Garden by A.S. Byatt 253300
The Virgin in the Garden is a wonderfully erudite entertainment in which enlightenment and sexuality, Elizabethan drama and contemporary comedy, intersect richly and unpredictably.

 

14. The Garden Party and Other Stories by Katherine Mansfield *****
Written during the final stages of her illness, “The Garden Party and Other Stories” is full of a sense of urgency and was Katherine Mansfield’s last collection to be published during her lifetime. The fifteen stories, many of them set in her native New Zealand, vary in length and tone from the opening story, “At the Bay, ” a vivid impressionistic evocation of family life, to the short, sharp sketch “Mrs. Brill, ” in which a lonely woman’s precarious sense of self is brutally destroyed when she overhears two young lovers mocking her. Sensitive revelations of human behaviour, these stories reveal Mansfield’s supreme talent as an innovator who freed the story from its conventions and gave it a new strength and prestige.

 

3117315. Villette by Charlotte Bronte *****
Arguably Brontë’s most refined and deeply felt work, Villette draws on her profound loneliness following the deaths of her three siblings. Lucy Snowe, the narrator of Villette,flees from an unhappy past in England to begin a new life as a teacher at a French boarding school in the great cosmopolitan capital of Villette. Soon Lucy’s struggle for independence is overshadowed by both her friendship with a worldly English doctor and her feelings for an autocratic schoolmaster. Brontë’s strikingly modern heroine must decide if there is any man in her society with whom she can live and still be free.

 

How many of these have you read?  Do any of them pique your interest?

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Snippet Reviews: Tempest, Jamie, and Hornby

I am a recent convert back to the lands of Goodreads, and thought I would share a couple of my shorter reviews on things which I have read recently.

The Bricks That Built the Houses by Kate Tempest *** 9781408857304
I was so very excited to begin this, adoring Tempest’s poetry as I do. I was expecting the language to be sweepingly gorgeous, and to evoke an awful lot of vivid pictures as the novel progressed. There were sections where the vocabulary startled or awed me, certainly, but others seemed so run-of-the-mill that there was an odd, almost jarring effect given to the whole.

The family dynamics presented here, and the way in which different lives overlap and intersect, are Tempest’s strength; she understands humans, and all of their many complexities. The plot is rather thin on the ground, though; we learn about the pasts of each character, but it is simply not compelling enough to carry the whole. Had the writing been better, I probably would have awarded this four stars.

 

9781509801718The Bonniest Companie by Kathleen Jamie ****
Each of these fifty-two poems presents a view of Scotland, written, as they were, once a week.  The scenes which Jamie depicts are startling and evocative; her poems are thoughtful, playful, gracious, and important. Jamie’s poetry is as beautifully measured as her prose.  The sense of history – both in a general and personal sense – here is stunning too, particularly when contrasted with Jamie’s present wanderings.

 

Funny Girl by Nick Hornby **
I picked this up solely because I have very much enjoyed the majority of Hornby’s books in the past (aside from Fever Pitch, which I didn’t even begin; please don’t alert my Arsenal-supporting boyfriend…). I wasn’t overly enamoured with the storyline before I began, as the 1960s and 1970s are eras of history which I don’t profess much interest in. The writing was flat, and the characters did not spring to life, as I remember almost all of Hornby’s previous creations doing.  9780241965221

My primary issue here is that a book which has been described as having ‘clever, funny dialogue’ (Nina Stibbe), ‘hilarious’ (The Huffington Post), and ‘deeply funny’ (The Stylist) feels so lacking in humour and depth. In my struggle through the novel, I did not come across even one witty repartee, or smirk-inducing sentence to share with you.

I must admit that I did not even read a quarter of this book; my lack of enjoyment up until that point, as well as the incredibly varied reviews – the majority of negative ones saying, as they did, that they didn’t enjoy it from the start – put me off completely. Sorry, Hornby, but this was not for me.

Purchase from The Book Depository

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Goodbye Goodreads

As of this afternoon, I am no longer a Goodreads member. After careful deliberation and my unwillingness for Amazon to use my words for their own purposes, I have deleted my account. I have made some wonderful friends in my time there, and read some wonderful books recommended to me, but for me, The Literary Sisters is a far more welcome place in which to post reviews, and it feels like a natural progression in the world of bookishness.