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Non-Fiction November: ‘Sea Room: An Island Life’ by Adam Nicolson ****

I received a copy of Adam Nicolson’s Sea Room: An Island Life (2001) for Christmas. Sea Room is a non-fiction account of a series of three remote Scottish islands – collectively known as the Shiants, found five miles away from the larger island of Lewis and Harris – which the author was given by his father on the occasion of his 21st birthday. I settled down with Sea Room during the third lockdown, wishing more than anything that I still had the freedom to travel, and to explore places as uninhabited as the Shiants.

Interestingly, Sea Room provides the first instance in which anyone has written at length about the islands. Early on, Nicolson pronounces that this book forms ‘an attempt to tell the whole story, as I now understand it, of a tiny place in as many dimensions as possible: geologically, spiritually, botanically, historically, culturally, aesthetically, ornithologically, etymologically, emotionally, politically, socially, archaeologically and personally.’ Suffice to say, he has not left much out, and the history which he provides feels thorough and complex.

In his introduction, Nicolson writes at length about the perception others have of the Shiants. He comments: ‘The rest of the world thinks there is nothing much to them. Even on a map of the Hebrides the tip of your little finger would blot them out, and if their five hundred and fifty acres of grass and rock were buried deep in the mainland of Scotland as some unconsidered slice of moor on which a few sheep grazed, no one would ever have noticed them… [But] they stand out high and undoubtable…with black cliffs five hundred feet tall chopping into a cold, dark, peppermint sea, with seals lounging at their feet…’.

These islands offered only a single rustic bothy for accommodation, without either heating or water. The last permanent inhabitants of the Shiants left in 1901, the way of life no longer sustainable. He looks into how the very small community would have lived upon the islands; how they would have relied on a diet of fish and seabirds, and how difficult it was to grow fresh food. There is a focus upon migratory patterns of both birds and humans, and a real emphasis upon the anthropological.

The Shiants have made an enormous impression upon Nicolson: ‘I have felt at times, and perhaps this is a kind of delirium, no gap between me and the place. I have absorbed it and been absorbed by it, as if I have had no distance apart from it. I have been shaped by those island times, and find it difficult now to achieve any kind of distance from them.’ He writes beautifully about the islands, commenting: ‘The sea makes islands significant. They are defined by it, both wedded to it and implacably set against it, both a creation and a rejection of the element which makes them what they are.’

There is a lovely, circular feel to the Shiants. Nicolson’s father, Nigel – the son of Vita Sackville-West – purchased the islands for £1,400 during the 1930s, from novelist Compton Mackenzie, no less, and was adamant that they would form Nicolson’s 21st birthday present. The author writes that he is going to be passing the islands onto his own son, a teenager at the time of writing.

Sea Room was a wonderful diversion from the world, and whilst I did not love it as much as Nicolson’s focused account The Seabird’s Cry, I still got an awful lot out of it. Sea Room is a love letter to a place and space which many have not encountered before. It is a thoughtful, almost meditative account of what a place can mean, and its precise and lyrical prose is a real joy to escape with.

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‘Sunset Song’ by Lewis Grassic Gibbon ***

I had meant to read Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song whilst living in Glasgow. Published in 1932, the novel has been voted the best Scottish book of all time. However, after three years of life in the city, I never got around to it, for some reason I cannot quite pinpoint. Fast forward almost two years, and I managed to find a discounted copy of Sunset Song online. It perhaps did not give quite the same experience to read this during early spring in England, but I was keen enough to meet the heroine of the piece that I picked it up almost as soon as it arrived.

Sunset Song focuses on a young Scottish woman named Chris Guthrie, a bright student who has to put her ambition on hold when her family moves from Aberdeenshire to a rather remote farming community. She is fifteen when this occurs. Soon after they arrive, her family begins to disintegrate. The naive and rather innocent Chris can feel that things are going wrong, but cannot quite understand their gravity. She is at the mercy of the land, and also of the people around her. Soon after they move, the omniscient narrator of the piece observes: ‘Something was happening to mother, things were happening to all of them, nothing ever stayed the same except maybe this weather…’.

Her mother commits suicide, after poisoning Chris’ baby twin siblings, and soon afterwards, two of her brothers are adopted by a childless aunt and uncle. Her father is violent – ‘… it was coarse, coarse land, wet, raw, and red clay, father’s temper grew worse the more he saw of it’ – and her elder brother, Will, becomes the only point of constancy in her life. The advent of the First World War also causes change, with those around her joining up to fight.

Her mother’s death particularly alters things for Chris, including the way in which she views the landscape: ‘… the black damp went out of the sunshine and the world went on, the white faces and whispering ceased from the pit, you’d never be the same again, but the world went on and you went with it. It was not mother only that died with the twins, something died in your heart and went down to lie with her in Kinraddie kirkyard – the child in your heart died then, the bairn that believed the hills were made for its play… Thar died, and the Chris of the books and the dreams died with it, or you folded them up in their paper of tissue and laid them away by the dark, quiet corpse that was your childhood.’

The novel is split into three parts – ‘Prelude’, ‘The Song’, and ‘Epilude’. The Prelude opens with a sweeping and detailed history of the town of Kinraddie, which is written in a style reminiscent of a Medieval legend. Here, Gibbon sets up the geography of the local area, and introduces several characters. We then move onto the main section of narrative, which is set during the first period of drought for thirty years; the landscape is ‘fair blistering with heat’. We are pulled immediately into Chris’ world; we learn of what she sees, thinks, and feels.

Sunset Song is the first volume of the Scots Quair trilogy. As I thought I would enjoy this novel far more than I did, I have decided that continuing with the series isn’t the best idea. By the end of the novel, I sadly had no real interest in any of the characters, or where their lives would lead them. I found Gibbon rather a shrewd writer, very understanding of his young character, and her tumultuous thoughts and feelings. At times, he captures her spirit and unease well; after she is struck, for instance: ‘She’d thought, running, stumbling up through the moor, with that livid flush on her cheek, up through the green of the April day with the bushes misted with cobwebs, I’ll never go back, I’ll never go back, I’ll drown myself in the loch! Then she stopped, her heart it seemed near to bursting and terribly below it moved something, heavy and slow it had been when she ran out…’. However, something about Chris as she became older alienated me as a reader; she did not feel quite convincing.

Sunset Song is a bleak novel, a sad portrait of a life which is marred by tragedy. There is nothing gentle about this book, which is, in part, a moving portrait of a family beset by change and grief. The real strength here for me was the portrayal of Scotland, particularly when she is at the mercy of the weather, and the way in which Gibbon captured place and period. There is a real artistry which can be found in some of Gibbon’s descriptions, which really helped to set the scene. This is not a heavy-going book; the narrative is relatively straightforward, and although the many Scots words which pepper the text are easy enough to grasp, a glossary has been included. However, it did feel a little too bleak in places, and I longed for a lighter read or two to balance it out.

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‘The Paper Cell’ by Louise Hutcheson ****

Louise Hutcheson’s debut novel, The Paper Cell, was a highly anticipated read for me, after seeing snippets of reviews sprinkled around the Internet, but not much more. The Paper Cell was published in 2017, and is part of the Contraband Pocket Crime Collection – which provides ‘distinctive diversions for discerning readers’. I received a copy of the lovely miniature Contraband hardback edition for Christmas, and dug in on Boxing Day.

In the London of the 1950s, a publishing assistant named Lewis Carson ‘finds fame when he secretly steals a young woman’s brilliant novel manuscript and publishes it under his own name’. Two days later, the woman’s body is found on Peckham Rye Common; she has been strangled to death. The blurb posits, rather intriguingly, ‘did Lewis purloin the manuscript as an act of callous opportunism, or as the spoils of a calculated murder?’

The Paper Cell begins in 1953, in a London-based publishing house. When Fran Watson, the young author in question, first pays him a visit, Hutcheson immediately sets the scene, showing how manipulative Lewis can be: ‘Lewis shifted behind his desk, aiming to look uncomfortable and achieving it. He affected a grimace as her eyes flitted up, then down. It was a pleasing dynamic, he thought. Though she had arrived when he was at the height of a bad temper, her obvious defects made him feel rather good about himself by comparison.’

At this point in time, Lewis has not read Fran’s manuscript, but rejects it – and her – regardless. After she has left, he then spends the next two hours ‘pored over its pages – once, twice, three times – returning compulsively again and again to the first page with a growing sense of horror.’ In London, Lewis belongs to a ‘ramshackle writers’ group with not one published piece between them and a tendency to get drunk before they get constructive’.

The narrative then shifts forward in time, and we move to Edinburgh. Here, an ageing Lewis is living, and in 1998, he is about to give his first interview for over a decade, to a sharp newspaper journalist. The novel which he stole was published under the title of ‘Victory Lap’, and is highly regarded as a classic of the twentieth century.

One of the real strengths of The Paper Cell is the control which Hutcheson has over her scenes and characters. She showcases a lot of emotions which flash and seethe within her cast. I very much enjoyed the vintage setting, which feels realistic; several period details are signposted throughout the novel, which embed it in time and place. Most of the narrative takes place in 1953, and the portions which occur in 1998 are, of course, heavily concerned with the earlier period. I really enjoyed Hutcheson’s descriptions, many of which are brief, but almost tangible; she writes, for instance, ‘The faintest whisper of daylight was beginning to creep through the drapes, but the room was mostly dark, and heavy with cigarette smoke.’

Hutcheson writes throughout with a practiced hand, and The Paper Cell, in consequence, feels like a very polished debut novel. It is not quite what I was expecting, and takes a lot of wonderful twists and turns as it goes on. The LGBTQ+ element to the plot was well handled too, and the entirety moves along nicely. Despite the brevity of the story, I felt that I really got to know the characters and their world. I was so enthralled by the novel, in fact, that I read it in a single sitting.

I have been careful not to give too much away in this review, as I very much enjoyed coming to The Paper Cell and knowing very little about it, aside from the stolen manuscript element of the plot revealed on its blurb. In my opinion, The Paper Cell is a book best to read without knowing the entire plot; it offers up many surprises in consequence, and there is far more to it than initially meets the eye. I very much look forward to reading more of Hutcheson’s work in future, as it certainly seems as though she has a promising writing career ahead.

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‘Wintering: A Season with Geese’ by Stephen Rutt

I adore books about the natural world, and find them both calming and peaceful to read – something which is very important, given the current state of the world. Stephen Rutt is a young naturalist who has published two non-fiction books; Wintering: A Season with Geese is his second.

Wintering was selected as one of the Times‘ Books of the Year 2019, and has been very highly praised. Jon Dunn in BBC Wildlife magazine writes: ‘Rutt’s dreamy prose is as cool and elegant as the season he charts’, and the Times calls it a ‘poignant testament to how we can find peace in the rhythms of the natural world.’ Waterstones calls it an ‘understated gem’.

In the autumn, Rutt swapped his life in Essex for a house near the Solway Firth in Dumfries, ‘a little town tucked away in the corner of Scotland, barely beyond the English border’. As he and his partner were settling in their new home, and their new country, thousands of pink-footed geese were also arriving from the Arctic Circle, to winter in Scotland. Their arrival is heralded each year as ‘one of the most evocative and powerful harbingers of the season.’

In his new surroundings, Rutt cannot help but notice geese; they seem to be everywhere around him. Although he had little curiosity regarding them before – he notes in his introduction that, in mid-September during his move, ‘I am not interested in geese yet’ – he embarks on an ‘extraordinary odyssey’, in which he ‘traces the lives and habits of the most common species of goose in the British Isles and explores the place they have in our culture and our history.’

In Wintering, Rutt has created what the book’s blurb hails ‘a vivid tour of the landscapes they inhabit and a celebration of the short days, varied weathers and long nights of the season.’ The author finds himself ‘celebrating the beauty of winter, when we share our home with these large, startling and garrulous birds.’

Wintering has been split into six different chapters, each of which corresponds to one of the most common species of geese in the United Kingdom. To be specific, these are the Pink-footed, Barnacle, Greylag, Brent, White-fronted, and Bean. In the book’s introduction, he notes that at the turn of winter: ‘Five wild species will head to Britain for the winter: a relative land of plenty, and gentler weather, respite from a north that is, still, ice-bloated and snowbound for the winter.’

Rutt had been a birder for a long time – ‘almost half my life,’ he says – but geese only became a fascination once he moved to Scotland: ‘Their habit of always just being there, their familiarity, bred apathy,’ he admits. His winter of geese begins on the 23rd of September, with a ‘simple arrow of birds as distant as the hills, heading south through the sunset.’ It is filled, then, with ‘wild half-count, half-estimates at the numbers passing overhead, between the fields north of the town and the Solway Firth to the south.’

Throughout Wintering, Rutt charts his journey into winter, and into his fascination with the geese: ‘I am falling more deeply for geese on a daily basis. Although I am told the winter won’t always be like this – they are wild geese after all, predictably unpredictable – the regular skeins flying over are captivating me. Sinking deep inside me… In a new place they are making me feel, tentatively, at home.’

From its very first page, where Rutt writes: ‘Autumn begins as a season for movement, and ends with everything changed’, one cannot help but be charmed by his pitch-perfect prose. He has such an awareness of the seasons, and of the birds which populate them. Early on, he writes: ‘Birds penetrate my year: time passes constantly but birds are the grammar of its passing, they give a rough working order to the months. I have my totems: the first singing chiffchaff at the beginning of spring and the first screeching swift at its end. The silencing of song at the end of summer; the disappearance of the swifts and the arrival of autumn.’

Rutt’s descriptions provide scenes so vivid that they are almost tangible to the reader: ‘Suddenly – geese, pushed over by the weather, heading to the Solway. A chaos of pink-footed geese, stretching across the horizon. There are thousands, the skeins straggling, struggling without a set order, flying in all directions. Lead geese swapping with others. Individuals peeling off and joining other groups, geese like a kaleidoscope of panic. Their honking sounds urgent. Wings labouring, growing damp in the rain, energy sapped by the wind.’ Later is this: ‘A hare basks in the middle of a field, in front of a dense barnacle goose flock, their monochrome plumage burning bright in the sun. The silver flanks dazzle, the white and black bars on their backs are like sharp light and thick shadow.’

Throughout, Rutt has sprinkled some really interesting facts about geese alongside his own observations. He writes, for instance, that the Bean goose is now so rare in the county of Dumfries and Galloway that ‘if you see one you have to write a description of it for a panel of four men to adjudicate on whether you are correct.’ He also writes about the fluctuation of population sizes, which are largely due to indiscriminate hunting, and the subsequent banning of this practice.

Throughout Wintering, Rutt discusses many elements which surround geese and their place in the world – their history, different migratory patterns, the uses for their meat and feathers, the domestication of various species, and geese in art and literature. He also touches upon conservation in many of the chapters which make up the book.

It was a wonderful thing, to revisit Scotland alongside Rutt. Although he lives in and describes a part of Scotland which I have never been to, having lived in Glasgow for three years, I recognised the often stark beauty of the landscapes which he writes about: ‘It is a bleak, dreich day: October by calendar, deep into winter by spirit. I can only faintly see the first line of hills. The trees reduced to pale grey shadows, their shapes indistinct in the weather.’

Wintering is a real delight, particularly to snuggle down with on a cool autumn or winter evening. It is clear that Rutt has such an interest in his chosen subjects; indeed, he writes: ‘My love of geese might be recent, but it connects me with a human fascination extending back for millennia.’

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Akylina’s Most Memorable Books of 2019

Here we are in the very last day of 2019, yet another year that flew by in the blink of an eye. I did manage to read more this year (68 books) compared to 2018 (52 books), and although I read some really great books, I can’t really say I have many new favourites. This is why, instead of a Best of 2019 list, I come to you with my most memorable reads of the year. Although not all of these books were 5-star reads for me, they are all books I still remember vividly and fondly today.

So, without further ado, let’s look at some of the books that made my 2019 a little brighter:

Masks by Enchi Fumiko 25304404

Perhaps one of the most memorable books of 2019 was the very first book I read, Masks by Enchi Fumiko, translated from Japanese by Juliet Winters Carpenter. A tale of deception, revenge and punishment like nothing you have read before, Masks is an excellent showcase of the narrative capabilities of Japanese female writers of the 1950s, who are significantly less talked about compared to the men writing in the same period.

 

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Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

When any form of media is suddenly widely popular and talked about, I’m always very skeptical about it, as I don’t always tend to agree with those popular opinions. Eleanor Oliphant, however, proved to be the bright exception to my own rule. I started reading it having absolutely no expectations, just wanting a light read for my daily commute, and I ended up becoming so attached to Eleanor and her story that I devoured it before realising it.

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov 29777060._SY475_

One of the most revered classics of Russian literature, Bulgakov’s masterpiece had been on my TBR list for a very long time. Numbering more than 500 pages, The Master and Margarita is a satirical and at times comical and, of course, controversial novel that takes place in Soviet Moscow. It was written during Stalin’s reign, but was published much, much later due to the severe censorship of the time (which, of course, is mentioned and criticised in the novel as well). Employing magical realism and a series of absurd events, Bulgakov weaves a tale that will remain in reader’s minds and hearts for a long time.

39980637._SY475_Sōseki: Modern Japan’s Greatest Novelist by John Nathan

Natsume Soseki was undoubtedly one of Japan’s biggest literary figures and John Nathan has done a really impressive job compiling his life and accomplishments in this tome. Soseki’s life story is truly fascinating to read, even though his character was not as praise-worthy as his literary production and contribution was. Nonetheless, no one can deny his massive role in shaping modern Japanese literature and the author of this book has done a wonderful job letting us in on some of his genius.

 

Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin 30039170._SY475_

I find Shirley Jackson one of the most intriguing modern authors and I always crave her writing, although I haven’t really read that much yet. A Rather Haunted Life recounts every detail of the author’s life (and I do mean every detail), from her childhood and college years to her married life and unfortunate death. I developed a massive dislike towards her husband, Stanley, since cheating is a behaviour I cannot tolerate, but overall it was very enjoyable reading (or rather listening, as I had this as an audiobook) about Shirley’s life and literary adventures.

 

43706056._SY475_The Five Wonders of Danube by Zoran Živković

Živković is one of the biggest literary figures of Serbia, so I was very excited to finally get to read some of his work. The Five Wonders of Danube is a whimsical and quite original homage to art of every kind and the artistic creation. The book consists of five parts, each one describing a separate incident/”wonder” that takes places in a different bridge of the Danube River, and all connecting somehow at the end. It was translated from Serbian by Alice Copple-Tošić and it was an excellent introduction to this great author’s work. I plan on posting a full review of it in January, so stay tuned if you want to hear more details about it.

Ο Κίτρινος Φάκελος [The Yellow Folder] by M. Karagatsis 6938031

Karagatsis is one of my favourite Greek authors and I’ll always lament the absence of his works in English translation. The Yellow Folder (my translation, as there’s no official one) is an excellent character study with drops of mystery and the consequences of attempting to control people’s lives and play with them just to see what happens. Chilling, unforgettable and utterly enjoyable, this novel is a treasure trove of literary allusions, musings on life and rich character study of the kind only Karagatsis can deliver.

18114976Apparitions: Ghosts of Old Edo by Miyabe Miyuki

Apart from Miyabe’s evocative writing, Apparitions is perhaps one of the best translations I’ve ever read from Japanese, as it truly read like a work originally written in English, without any phrase or passage of awkward phrasing, all thanks to the magic pen of Daniel Huddleston. Apparitions contains several short stories, all set in the Edo (former name of Tokyo) period of feudal Japan. Miyabe’s Old Edo is rife with vengeful spirits and malevolent ghosts, creating a thoroughly creepy and chilling atmosphere, but one which the reader truly cannot get enough of.

Tokyo Ueno Station by Yū Miri Print

I don’t think I can call Tokyo Ueno Station a favourite book, mostly because it’s theme and plot are so harrowing and heartbreaking that just thinking about it even months after having read it just makes my heart ache. However, I do believe it’s an extremely important read, simply because sometimes we get too caught up in our lives and problems and don’t become aware of the people who might be suffering right next to us. On the eve of the Tokyo Olympics in 1964, after having lost his family, our protagonist finds himself homeless at Ueno Park near the station and he starts remembering bits and pieces of his life. His son was born at the same day as the Emperor’s son, and yet his fate ended up being entirely different. Tokyo Ueno Station is nothing short of a punch in the gut, as it exposes the ugliest side of life and the inevitability that chases around people who are not privileged. It was translated from Japanese by Morgan Giles.

These are some of the most memorable books I read in 2019. For 2020, I’m hoping to read a little more broadly, read some new to me authors and read literature from countries I haven’t yet read.

Have you read any of these books? What were your most memorable reads of 2019? What are your 2020 reading goals?

Happy New Year to everyone, and I hope 2020 brings you health, joy and lots of bookish delights! 🙂

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‘The Big House’ by Helena McEwen ****

Over the years, I have seen very few reviews of Helena McEwen’s work; she seems to be quite an underappreciated author.  I have read her other two published novels before – Ghost Girl (2004) and Invisible River (2011) – and very much enjoyed both, but the overall ratings on Goodreads for both books are rather low (average ratings of 2.82 and 3.10 respectively).  The Big House, her debut novel, has been even more poorly rated, with an average score of 2.65.  It is, however, my favourite amongst what I feel are three very good novels.

The Independent on Sunday deems The Big House ‘brilliant…  A book of immense skill and unique vision’, and the Observer calls it ‘touching, poetic and utterly unsentimental.’  In the novel, protagonist Elizabeth’s brother James has committed suicide.  After her sister Kitty also passes away, a victim of drowning, ‘it is more than she can bear.  As she wanders the large family mansion of her childhood – a haunting place of mystery, wonder and opulence – the memories of an apparently idyllic but secretly threatening past will not let her go.’  She makes her way to Scotland, where the family home is about to be sold, in order to be alone with the memory of her siblings. 9780747548485

From the first, I found Elizabeth’s narrative voice both mesmerising and absorbing.  Trying to make sense of her loss, she asks: ‘What has happened in that time, from spring to autumn, the lifetime of a leaf?  What happened when it poked its way through the four small doors, and unfurled its pale-green folded-up pleats to the world?  James died.  And what happened as the yellow green darkened to summer green, then began to turn yellow at the edges as late summer crept along the branches?  Kitty died…’.  When this particular reflection begins, Elizabeth stands at the point in the year when the leaves are falling.

The narrative voice in The Big House is very connected to the natural world; such attention has been given to sensation and colour particularly.  Given the nature of the death of both siblings, one so deliberate and the other an accident, Elizabeth has to imagine that both are now in a better place: ‘And I can’t think of Kitty’s terrified struggle for life, and I can’t think of the pain that made James pull the trigger, because I can feel where they have gone.  It is a singing place full of light.  It dazzles me.  I long for the sweetness of it.  It is home, and I want to go home.’

The imagery in The Big House is by turns fragile and stark.  McEwen writes, for example, ‘James went along to the gun room and took a rifle down from the stand.  He must have loaded it at night in the dark, and he lay down outside in the leaves and hugged the gun as though it was a friend.’  The scenes which depict grief are touching and raw.  After James’ death on the aforementioned night, Elizabeth recalls: ‘Kitty and I lay on a bed in a hotel with the window open.  I didn’t want to leave her, even go out of the room.  I didn’t want to be anywhere without her, and feel all the feelings about James on my own.  So we lay together on the bed, with our bare arms wrapped around each other, letting the terrible feelings pass through at the same time, and outside we could hear the sea lapping against the rocks and the seagulls calling plaintive cries in the air.  They called through us, and the sound felt our pain.’

One gets a sense of something other than realism filling Elizabeth’s childhood; there are, on occasion, elements of the otherworldly, and a continuing feeling of being observed by the unknown.  ‘The invisible beings of the house seem to draw closer to me and I feel their shadows passing through me.  Little winds blow in my ear, and make me shiver, and strange wispy feelings slide up and down my spine.’  I very much enjoyed the use of the unreliable narrator which McEwen created here, and the brief sense of retrospect at the beginning of the novel, before the narrative which follows is filled with childhood memories.  There is not a great deal of plot when this ensues, but the scenes and memories which are woven in are striking and memorable.  There is a timeless quality to this story; it is never stated explicitly when events occur, and very few cultural details can be found throughout.  The Big House provides a lovely, and quite thorough, exploration of a childhood, and the strength of sibling relationships.

Purchase from The Book Depository

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‘The Boy with the Cuckoo-Clock Heart’ by Mathias Malzieu **

I expected that Mathias Malzieu’s novel of magical realism, The Boy With the Cuckoo-Clock Heart, would be both quirky and charming, and full of whimsy.  It is described as ‘a dark and tender fairytale spiced with devilish humour.’  I have had the novel on my to-read list for years, and was very excited when my slim hardback copy arrived.  However, my overwhelming feeling about the novel is one of disappointment.

9780701183691The Boy With the Cuckoo-Clock Heart has been translated from its original French by Sarah Ardizzone, and opens in Edinburgh in 1874.  A baby named Jack is born to a very young mother, and is found to have a frozen heart.  He is given an operation, in which the unconventional Dr Madeleine ‘surgically implants a cuckoo clock into his chest.’  The novel’s first sentences set the initial tone, although they do give a feeling of fairytale and wonder, which is not carried through the entire book: ‘Firstly: don’t touch the hands of your cuckoo-clock heart.  Secondly: master your anger.  Thirdly: never, ever fall in love.  For if you do, the hour hand will poke through your skin, your bones will shatter, and your heart will break once more.’

The novel is narrated by Jack, and follows his infatuation with an Andalusian girl made of fire: ‘Almost without realising it, I’m falling in love.  Except I do realise it too.  Inside my clock, it’s the hottest day on earth.’  Dr Madeleine, who becomes his guardian after his mother abandons him, worries that love will be a dangerous experience, and that his heart will be quite unable to take the strain.  She tells him: ‘Your cuckoo-clock heart will explode.  I was the one who grafted that clock on to you, and I have a perfect understanding of its limits.  It might survive the intensity of pleasure, and beyond.  But it is not robust enough to endure the torment of love.’  Jack’s narrative voice rarely feels authentic when he is supposed to be a child, and there is little change within it as he reaches adulthood.  There is next to no character development within the novel, which is a real shame.

The initial descriptions which Malzieu gives of Edinburgh are highly sensuous: ‘Edinburgh and its steep streets are being transformed.  Fountains metamorphose, one by one, into bouquets of ice.  The old river, normally so serious, is disguised as an icing sugar lake that stretches all the way to the sea.’  Other descriptions too verge upon the breathtaking: ‘… the hoarfrost stitches sequins on to cats’ bodies.  The trees stretch their arms, like fat fairies in white nightshirts, yawning at the moon…’.  Whilst the descriptions of both place and people are by turns lively and inventive, it did not seem to me as though the rest of Malzieu’s writing quite stood up.  It is when the narrative moves from Scotland to Spain that such descriptions start to suffer; they become relatively few and far between, and feel a little repetitive in what they pinpoint and express.

On initially viewing the dustjacket’s design and reading the blurb, I would have thought that The Boy With the Cuckoo-Clock Heart would be a suitable book for a child to read.  It seems not, however; there are several marked references to sex, and some quite coarse language at times too.  One of the fundamental flaws of the novel for me was that it did not appear to know exactly what it wanted to be, and there was too much going on at some points, and not enough at others.  It felt inconsistent, and did not hold my interest once its initial few chapters had passed.  I had qualms with the modern feel of the dialogue, which did not fit with the chosen time period at all; the historical detail was also rather patchy, and there are a few clumsy mistakes to be found for the eagle-eyed reader.

There are certainly some interesting ideas at play here, and I particularly admired the inclusion of Georges Melies, a real-life figure whose playful short films I love.  It did not quite come together in my opinion, however, and felt markedly peculiar.  It was difficult to immerse myself within the story, and it certainly loses momentum at points due to its inconsistent pacing.  The fairytale elements which are emphasised within the book’s blurb are relatively non-existent.  The translation was fluid, but regardless, I ended up disliking more about the novel than I liked.  The Boy With the Cuckoo-Clock Heart is what I imagine literary steampunk would be like; of marked interest to the right reader, but not really of appeal to this one.

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‘The Weatherhouse’ by Nan Shepherd ***

I had read one of Nan Shepherd’s books before coming to The Weatherhouse The Living Mountain is a glorious meditation upon the natural world, and I very much admired the way in which Shepherd’s descriptions were able to build such a full picture of the Cairngorms, which she so adored.  The Weatherhouse was my first foray into her fiction.

9781782118862The Weatherhouse takes place in a small fictitious town in Scotland named Fetter-Rothnie.  Many of the men have left in pursuit of war, and the women who remain have become accustomed to living in a female-dominated community.  As in The Living Mountain, the sense of place is built vividly from the outset, and Shepherd’s imagery is beautiful.  She writes, for instance: ‘On the willows by the pool the catkins were fluffed, insubstantial, their stamens held so lightly to the tree that they seemed like the golden essence of its life escaping to the liberty of air.’

Shepherd’s portrayal of the women who live in Fetter-Rothnie is fascinating in its shrewdness.  Of one of her protagonists, she writes: ‘She did not know human pain and danger.  She thought she did, but the pain she knew was only her own quivering hurt.  Her world was all her own, she its centre and interpretation; and she had even a faint sweet contempt for those who could not enter it.’

The use of Scotch dialect is effective, but it did feel a touch overdone and impenetrable for the English reader in places.  The fact that some of the language used was rather old-fashioned did not aid me at all in being able to translate it, I must admit.  This unfortunately prohibited me from connecting with, or understanding, the characters, which was a real shame, and it certainly affected my reading of the novel.

I feel a little disappointed by The Weatherhouse; for me, it just did not reach the heights that I was expecting.  Whilst the descriptions were lovely, and often quite original, the general prose verged on lacklustre, saturated as it was with details that did not interest me.  It did feel as though Shepherd lost focus at times, and the whole did not come together in a way which I felt was either creative or satisfactory.  Perhaps this is my own fault; The Weatherhouse is the second part of Shepherd’s Grampian Quartet, which I was not aware of when beginning this particular novel.

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2017’s Yearly Challenge: Round Up

I decided to put together four lists this year – one of authors I wanted to read, another of books which had caught my eye, and projects made up of French and Scottish-set books.  I have not done anywhere near as well with my yearly challenges as I had anticipated.  I overstretched myself rather; although I’ve been doing a lot of reading this year, I have neglected these lists over the last few months, and have been reading at whim instead.  I thought that I would just write a relatively concise post about how I did with my challenges in terms of numbers, and which books were particular highlights for me.  You can see my full list, with all of the titles, here.  On a brighter note, I did manage to complete my Reading the World challenge, where I scheduled a review of a piece of translated literature every Saturday.  My full list can be found here.

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George Sand

With regard to the authors, I actually did rather well.  Out of nineteen pinpointed, there were only four which I did not get to (Amelie Nothomb, Lydia Millet, Leena Krohn, and Gunter Grass).  Wonderful discoveries for me from this list were George Sand, John Wyndham, Ira Levin, and Anita Desai.  It was lovely to revisit some favourite authors too – Rebecca West and Agatha Christie, to name but two.

With regard to my book list, I fared worse.  Out of quite an extensive list of titles (thirty-four in all), I only managed to read seventeen.  There were a few books which I was disappointed with (The Shining by Stephen King, The Folded Clock by Heidi Julavits, Geek Love by Katherine Dunn), but I found some new favourites too.  Amongst those which I rated the most highly are the beautiful, quiet Welsh novel The Life of Rebecca Jones by Angharad Price (review here), the gorgeous and immersive This Must Be the Place by Maggie O’Farrell, the perfectly paced The Blank Wall by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, the haunting and strange Fell by Jenn Ashworth, the hilariously funny Where Am I Now? 9780143128229by Mara Wilson (review here), the profound and beautifully poetic The Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss (review here), and the downright creepy The Dumb House by John Burnside.

My efforts for my French reading project were paltry; I only read nine books out of a list of thirty.  Particular standouts for me were the lovely non-fiction account by Peter Mayle of his move to France, entitled A Year in Provence, Julia Stuart‘s terribly charming The Matchmaker of Perigord, the wonderfully bookish A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cosse, and the beautiful Strait is the Gate by Andre Gide.  Of my rereads, I very much enjoyed revisiting Irene Nemirovsky, whose books I adore, as well 9781933372822as Elizabeth McCracken‘s searingly touching An Exact Replica of a Figment of my Imagination.

My Scottish reading project was a little better.  Out of twenty-nine books, I read eight, and gave up on four.  I was particularly charmed by Anne Donovan‘s Buddha Da, my reread of Maggie O’Farrell‘s wonderful The VanishingAct of Esme Lennox, and Jenni Fagan‘s engrossing, and awfully human, The Sunlight Pilgrims.

I have set my sights a little lower for my 2018 reading challenge, choosing only to participate in the Around the World in 80 Books group on Goodreads.  I will be reading books from, or set within, eighty different countries around the world, and could not be more excited about what I will discover.

How did you get on with your 2018 challenges?  Do you always set reading challenges, or do you prefer to read without any restrictions?