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TBR Tracker Update: July

I started the month of July with 25 books on my TBR; this includes both physical books, and those on my Kindle.  The majority of my leftover physical books are now at my parents’ house, and I need to pick them up during August.  I have therefore mainly been focusing upon reading the books which I have bought over the last year or two on my Kindle.

51b1g92btpjl._sx324_bo1204203200_I have added three books to my TBR this month, but did not actively purchase any of them during July.  I received a copy of Irène Némirovsky’s All Our Worldly Goods.  This however is not a recent purchase.  I had ordered it from AbeBooks in March, and had not received the copy, so was given a full refund by the seller.  It finally – and luckily – turned up in the post on my last week in Glasgow before I moved.  The other two books which I added to my TBR were copies which I received as belated birthday presents – A Castle in England by Jamie Rhodes was a graphic novel given to me by my good friend Katie, and my sister gifted me a copy of My Mum, Tracy Beaker by Jacqueline Wilson for nostalgic purposes.  I have read each of these books, and very much enjoyed them all.

With regard to my original TBR list, I have managed to read seven titles.  My TBR therefore stands at 18 books.  I had intended to get this down to 15 by the end of July, but with moving and discovering my great new public library, this did not quite go to plan.  I am pleased with my progress however.

I have written up short reviews of the books which I have managed to read below.  Two of them – The Map That Changed the World by Simon Winchester, and Clara by Janice Galloway – will be appearing as full-length reviews early next year.

 

The Testament of Gideon Mack by James Robertson (abandoned) 512bzxe5v1ol._sx324_bo1204203200_

I purchased James Robertson’s The Testament of Gideon Mack quite some time ago, and it had been languishing on my to-read pile for ages. Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2006, this is the first of Robertson’s books which I have read, and it will sadly more than likely be the last.

In some ways, this is not the kind of book which I would usually go for, as I tend to steer clear of largely religious content. However, the elements of satire and the unusual quality which the story promised drew me in. Whilst not badly written, The Testament of Gideon Mack simply failed to pull me in at all. I did not find Mack convincing or quirky enough for a story of this kind. His first-person narrative voice was rather vague at times, and meandered with little direction.

I read around a quarter of the novel, but found that it was doing very little for me, and that I did not care at all about its characters. I can see why a lot of readers would appreciate The Testament of Gideon Mack, but it is simply not the book for me.

 

Chernobyl: The History of a Tragedy by Serhii Plokhy *** 9780141988351

I am so interested in Chernobyl and its aftereffects, and therefore felt as though Plokhy’s scholarly account of the nuclear disaster would be well worth picking up.  The facts that it won the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction in 2018, and that it is written by a professor of History at Harvard University further piqued my interest.

I found Chernobyl: The History of a Tragedy fascinating from the outset, and learnt a great deal from it.  Plokhy focuses on both individuals and the collective community, in both Chernobyl and its neighbouring town of Pripyat, and in Ukraine as a whole.  Plokhy’s tone is, as I expected, academic, and those chapters which deal with the explosion of the nuclear reactor are incredibly dense, and packed with almost too much information to process.  

I did not feel as though the book was entirely consistent, as some of the chapters felt rather choppy, and others flowed well.  In this manner, Plokhy’s account does tend to feel a little disjointed.  Whilst Chernobyl: The History of a Tragedy is highly saturated at points, as I have mentioned, it is worth persevering with.  I have a few qualms with it, and it is undeniably dry in places, but this weighty tome will be useful to anyone wishing to learn about the science of the nuclear explosion at Chernobyl, and its later impact.

 

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick ***

nothing_to_envyWhilst I found Demick’s accounts of several citizens of North Korea, some of whom have since defected, interesting, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea did not prove as engaging as I was expecting.  Often, I found Demick’s tone to be impersonal and detached, and this was curious in a piece of reportage which focuses so closely upon individuals.  Some of the chapters here kept me more interested than others, and I must admit that there were one or two which I did not really enjoy at all.  Whilst Demick ties together her points well, Nothing to Envy is by no means the best book about North Korea which I have read, and I would hesitate to recommend it.

 

If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin ****

I had originally intended to write a full review of James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could 41-708jgc9l._sx324_bo1204203200_Talk, but decided that I would simply read it and jot down some thoughts instead.  This is not my first taste of Baldwin’s work.  I have read his wonderful and touching Giovanni’s Room, the novella which he is perhaps most famous for, as well as his lovely compendium of Greek mythology, and the Penguin Mini of his selected essays (review here).  

Tish, the nineteen-year-old narrator of If Beale Street Could Talk, has just discovered that she is pregnant.  Her boyfriend, twenty two-year-old Fonny, is in prison, accused of raping a Puerto Rican woman.  I very much enjoyed the way in which Baldwin unfolds and probes into their relationship from their childhoods, and found his approach convincing.  The characters, too, are entirely believable.

Baldwin’s prose is strikingly contemporary, and his story so poignant.  I was surprised throughout the novella, particularly with regard to the graphic scenes and coarse language which Baldwin includes.  If Beale Street Could Talk has a markedly different feel to Giovanni’s Room, and I found it far grittier.  Baldwin comments wonderfully, and often scathingly, upon the society of 1970s New York, and what life was like for the black community, who were so often scapegoated and unjustly treated.

 

Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine by Anne Applebaum

9780141978284I read Anne Applebaum’s Gulag several years ago, and thought it excellent.  I was therefore very much looking forward to diving into her oeuvre of non-fiction.  For some reason, it has taken me an awfully long time to pick up another of her books, but <i>Red Famine<i> was just as thorough and well-written as I was expecting it to be.  Applebaum’s writing is always so considered, and is highly accessible, whether one knows a great deal about the famines in Ukraine engineered by the Soviet Union, or whether it is a new topic altogether.  Applebaum uses facts and testimonies alongside her own commentary, and remarks on how so many different topics interlink.  A fascinating tome, and one which I would highly recommend.

 

My current TBR stands as follows:

Physical:

  1. Thomas Hardy: A Life by Claire Tomalin
  2. The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann
  3. The Diviners by Margaret Laurence 9780226469355
  4. North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell
  5. Les Parisiennes: How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved and Died in the 1940s by Anne Sebba
  6. These Happy Golden Years by Laura Ingalls Wilder
  7. Little Town on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder
  8. Cold Light by Jenn Ashworth
  9. Travellers in the Third Reich by Julia Boyd
  10. The Priory by Dorothy Whipple
  11. The Seabird’s Cry by Adam Nicolson
  12. Hagseed by Margaret Atwood
  13. Mary Poppins, She Wrote: The Life of P.L. Travers by Valerie Lawson
  14. Brighton Rock by Graham Greene

 

Kindle:

  1. Sweet Caress by William Boyd
  2. Song of the Lark by Willa Cather
  3. The Complete Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
  4. The Necessary Marriage by Elisa Lodato

 

I am keen to get my TBR down to 10 books by the end of August.  Having a TBR of between 5 and 10 books is my goal, but ultimately, I have decided that I would like to completely eradicate my TBR.  I will then be able to focus on reading books from my local library, and all of the galleys which have mounted up on my Kindle over the last couple of years.  Any books which I therefore add to my TBR, whether purchased by myself or received as gifts, can be read very quickly to maintain a zero books TBR.

Please wish me luck for the next leg of getting rid of my TBR altogether!

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‘Frankenstein’ by Mary Shelley (July 2013)

The gorgeous Penguin Deluxe Edition

On the whole, I was very excited when asked if I wanted to read Frankenstein again, in order to try and support April’s A-Level reading.  Funnily enough, I first began the novel whilst I was studying for my own A-Levels, but it wasn’t part of my curriculum.  I enjoyed it so much the first time around that I read it again in 2011, and last week I jumped at the chance to become reacquainted with the novel.

To my delight, I found that I remembered an awful lot of the story, even with regard to the names and traits of the minor characters and the different narrative voices used throughout the novel.  In that respect, I believe that this is one of the most memorable books – and stories, for that matter – which I have ever read.

I find with each re-read that the different narrative voices which Shelley makes use of are engaging, and I love the way in which the first person perspective has been used throughout.  This adds to the story immensely, and means that we as readers can see the story from both sides – Frankenstein’s and his monster’s – as well as those affected by the trouble which is caused as a result of his creation.  It felt as though a lot of empathy and understanding had been built up on behalf of both parties.  Another element of the story, which is one of its definite strengths for me, is the way in which Shelley writes so believably from a male perspective.  She really does portray a wide and far-reaching understanding of the human psyche, and the wealth of emotions which she captures on the page are wonderfully realised.

Mary Shelley, author of ‘Frankenstein’

I love epistolatory novels, and this is the first which I remember really enjoying.  Whilst the novel is not told entirely through the medium of letters, they do provide rather a comfortable backbone to the story, and they set the tone and scenes marvellously.  The turns of phrase which Shelley weaves in are lovely, and her sentences are beautifully crafted.

“I have love in me the likes of which you can scarcely imagine and rage the likes of which you would not believe. If I cannot satisfy the one, I will indulge the other.”

Her descriptions too are written with such deftness.  These elements serve only to make a lot of other books, even those from the same period, seem rather bland in comparison.  I love old literature, and am far more at home with a Bronte or Wilde story in my hand than with anything remotely postmodern, so personally I found the story quite an easy one to get into.  The delicious language sets each and every scene perfectly, and I adore the nightmare-like feel which the passages have, particularly around the time at which the monster is created.  I also love the references to poetry throughout.  To conclude, Frankenstein is a marvellous novel, and its status as a literary classic is certainly well-deserved from this reviewer’s perspective.

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‘The Iron Man’ by Ted Hughes (July 2013)

 The first book club choice on our new blog is the wonderful The Iron Man by Ted Hughes, a story which I am sure many people are familiar with.  Having only read fragments of Hughes’ poetry in the past, I was intrigued when I saw how many works of children’s fiction he produced during his writing career.  I chose it with relatively high hopes, and am incredibly pleased to say that I wasn’t in the least disappointed.

Faber & Faber edition

 

The Iron Man, which was first published in 1968, tells the story of a metal man, thought at first to be an enemy of the people.  He is found by a group of local villagers whilst snacking on their farm equipment, and they decide that the best thing to do in such circumstances is to build an enormous pit and lure the Iron Man inside.  This they do.  What they don’t factor into the equation is that the Iron Man is able to escape.  This he does.  A friendship with a young boy named Hogarth ensues, and to prove his worth to the sceptical adults, the Iron Man is tasked with saving the earth from an evil space creature.

This sounds very sci-fi, I know, and my wariness of choosing this as my first Hughes book to read was based purely upon the fact that I don’t overly enjoy science fiction as a genre.  All of my apprehension about it dissipated on the first page however, and I found The Iron Man to be an incredibly enjoyable little novel.  The story is one of the most inventive which I’ve come across in a long while, and I loved the way in which Hughes crafted his tale.  Despite the other-worldly beings, the writing style and descriptions throughout made it appear almost believable.

Andrew Davidson’s illustration of the Iron Man rebuilding himself

As a character, I adored the Iron Man.  He was wonderfully invented, and the passage about how his destroyed body rebuilt itself was so beautiful and startling that I read it numerous times.  Hughes’ imagination is a marvellous one, and Andrew Davidson’s monochrome illustrations which accompany the volume are beautiful.

If I had read this as a child, I would have been both terrified and utterly enchanted by the brilliant and memorable story and its characters.  There is nothing at all in the novel which I feel could be improved, and it has already become a firm favourite of mine. 

I feel that I should end on the wonderfully heartwarming message of the book:

“You are who you choose to be.”