5

The Book Trail: From ‘The Fire Starters’ to ‘Piranesi’

This edition of The Book Trail begins with a novel which I very much enjoyed when I read it last year; I found its depiction of The Troubles quite surprising, and also highly chilling at times. As ever, I have used the Goodreads ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ feature to generate this list.

1. The Fire Starters by Jan Carson
‘Dr Jonathan Murray fears his new-born daughter is not as harmless as she seems. Sammy Agnew is wrestling with his dark past, and fears the violence in his blood lurks in his son, too. The city is in flames and the authorities are losing control. As matters fall into frenzy, and as the lines between fantasy and truth, right and wrong, begin to blur, who will these two fathers choose to protect? Dark,propulsive and thrillingly original, this tale of fierce familial love and sacrifice fizzes with magic and wonder.’

2. Strange Flowers by Donal Ryan
‘In 1973 Moll Gladney goes missing from the Tipperary hillside where she was born. Slowly her parents, Paddy and Kit, begin to accept that she’s gone forever. But she returns, changed, and with a few surprises for her family and neighbours. Nothing is ever the same again for the Gladneys, who learn that fate cares little for duty, that life rarely conforms to expectation, that God can’t be relied upon to heed any prayer. A story of exile and return, of loss and discovery, of retreat from grief and the saving power of love.’

3. After the Silence by Louise O’Neill
‘Nessa Crowley’s murderer has been protected by silence for ten years. Until a team of documentary makers decide to find out the truth. On the day of Henry and Keelin Kinsella’s wild party at their big house a violent storm engulfed the island of Inisrun, cutting it off from the mainland. When morning broke Nessa Crowley’s lifeless body lay in the garden, her last breath silenced by the music and the thunder. The killer couldn’t have escaped Inisrun, but no one was charged with the murder. The mystery that surrounded the death of Nessa remained hidden. But the islanders knew who to blame for the crime that changed them forever. Ten years later a documentary crew arrives, there to lift the lid off the Kinsellas’ carefully constructed lives, determined to find evidence that will prove Henry’s guilt and Keelin’s complicity in the murder of beautiful Nessa. In this bold, brilliant, disturbing new novel Louise O’Neill shows that deadly secrets are devastating to those who hold them close.’

4. A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ni Ghiofra
‘A true original. In this stunningly unusual prose debut, Doireann Ni Ghriofa sculpts essay and autofiction to explore inner life and the deep connection felt between two writers centuries apart. In the 1700s, an Irish noblewoman, on discovering her husband has been murdered, drinks handfuls of his blood and composes an extraordinary poem. In the present day, a young mother narrowly avoids tragedy. On encountering the poem, she becomes obsessed with its parallels with her own life, and sets out to track down the rest of the story. A devastating and timeless tale about one woman freeing her voice by reaching into the past and finding another’s.’

5. Actress by Anne Enright
‘Katherine O’Dell is an Irish theater legend. As her daughter Norah retraces her mother’s celebrated career and bohemian life, she delves into long-kept secrets, both her mother’s and her own. Katherine began her career on Ireland’s bus-and-truck circuit before making it to London’s West End, Broadway, and finally Hollywood. Every moment of her life is a star turn, with young Norah standing in the wings. But the mother-daughter romance cannot survive Katherine’s past or the world’s damage. With age, alcohol, and dimming stardom, her grip on reality grows fitful and, fueled by a proud and long-simmering rage, she commits a bizarre crime. Her mother’s protector, Norah understands the destructive love that binds an actress to her audience, but also the strength that an actress takes from her art. Once the victim of a haunting crime herself, Norah eventually becomes a writer, wife, and mother, finding her way to her own hard-won joy. Actress is a book about the freedom we find in our work and in the love we make and keep.’

6. 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. Flyaway by Kathleen Jennings
‘In a small Western Queensland town, a reserved young woman receives a note from one of her vanished brothers—a note that makes question her memories of their disappearance and her father’s departure. A beguiling story that proves that gothic delights and uncanny family horror can live—and even thrive—under a burning sun, Flyaway introduces readers to Bettina Scott, whose search for the truth throws her into tales of eerie dogs, vanished schools, cursed monsters, and enchanted bottles. In these pages Jennings assures you that gothic delights, uncanny family horror, and strange, unsettling prose can live—and even thrive—under a burning sun.’

8. Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
‘Piranesi’s house is no ordinary building: its rooms are infinite, its corridors endless, its walls are lined with thousands upon thousands of statues, each one different from all the others. Within the labyrinth of halls an ocean is imprisoned; waves thunder up staircases, rooms are flooded in an instant. But Piranesi is not afraid; he understands the tides as he understands the pattern of the labyrinth itself. He lives to explore the house. There is one other person in the house—a man called The Other, who visits Piranesi twice a week and asks for help with research into A Great and Secret Knowledge. But as Piranesi explores, evidence emerges of another person, and a terrible truth begins to unravel, revealing a world beyond the one Piranesi has always known.’

Have you read any of these books? Which of them pique your interest?

6

Armchair Travel: The USA (Part One)

I have been lucky enough to visit the United States on a few occasions, but given the sheer vastness of the country, I’m sure that there will always be states and cities which I really want to visit! I have collected together books from two states here, all of which I really, really want to go to, as soon as it’s safe. Part Two of this post will follow next month; there were just far too many books to choose from!

Georgia

Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones

‘With the opening line of Silver Sparrow, “My father, James Witherspoon is a bigamist,” Tayari Jones unveils a breathtaking story about a man’s deception, a family’s complicity, and the teenage girls caught in the middle. Set in a middle-class neighborhood in Atlanta in the 1980s, the novel revolves around James Witherspoon’s families– the public one and the secret one. When the daughters from each family meet and form a friendship, only one of them knows they are sisters. It is a relationship destined to explode when secrets are revealed and illusions shattered. As Jones explores the backstories of her rich and flawed characters, she also reveals the joy, and the destruction, they brought to each other’s lives. At the heart of it all are the two girls whose lives are at stake, and like the best writers, Jones portrays the fragility of her characers with raw authenticity as they seek love, demand attention, and try to imagine themselves as women.’

Driving Miss Daisy by Alfred Uhry

‘The place is the Deep South, the time 1948, just prior to the civil rights movement. Having recently demolished another car, Daisy Wertham, a rich, sharp-tongued Jewish widow of seventy-two, is informed by her son, Boolie, that henceforth she must rely on the services of a chauffeur. The person he hires for the job is a thoughtful, unemployed black man, Hoke, whom Miss Daisy immediately regards with disdain and who, in turn, is not impressed with his employer’s patronizing tone and, he believes, her latent prejudice. But, in a series of absorbing scenes spanning twenty-five years, the two, despite their mutual differences, grow ever closer to, and more dependent on, each other, until, eventually, they become almost a couple. Slowly and steadily the dignified, good-natured Hoke breaks down the stern defenses of the ornery old lady, as she teaches him to read and write and, in a gesture of good will and shared concern, invites him to join her at a banquet in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. As the play ends Hoke has a final visit with Miss Daisy, now ninety-seven and confined to a nursing home, and while it is evident that a vestige of her fierce independence and sense of position still remain, it is also movingly clear that they have both come to realize they have more in common than they ever believed possible-and that times and circumstances would ever allow them to publicly admit.’

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt

‘A sublime and seductive reading experience. Brilliantly conceived and masterfully written, this enormously engaging portrait of a most beguiling Southern city has become a modern classic. Shots rang out in Savannah’s grandest mansion in the misty, early morning hours of May 2, 1981. Was it murder or self-defense? For nearly a decade, the shooting and its aftermath reverberated throughout this hauntingly beautiful city of moss-hung oaks and shaded squares. John Berendt’s sharply observed, suspenseful, and witty narrative reads like a thoroughly engrossing novel, and yet it is a work of nonfiction. Berendt skillfully interweaves a hugely entertaining first-person account of life in this isolated remnant of the Old South with the unpredictable twists and turns of a landmark murder case. It is a spellbinding story peopled by a gallery of remarkable characters: the well-bred society ladies of the Married Woman’s Card Club; the turbulent young redneck gigolo; the hapless recluse who owns a bottle of poison so powerful it could kill every man, woman, and child in Savannah; the aging and profane Southern belle who is the “soul of pampered self-absorption”; the uproariously funny black drag queen; the acerbic and arrogant antiques dealer; the sweet-talking, piano-playing con artist; young blacks dancing the minuet at the black debutante ball; and Minerva, the voodoo priestess who works her magic in the graveyard at midnight. These and other Savannahians act as a Greek chorus, with Berendt revealing the alliances, hostilities, and intrigues that thrive in a town where everyone knows everyone else.’

Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata

kira-kira (kee ra kee ra): glittering; shining Glittering. That’s how Katie Takeshima’s sister, Lynn, makes everything seem. The sky is kira-kira because its color is deep but see-through at the same time. The sea is kira-kira for the same reason and so are people’s eyes. When Katie and her family move from a Japanese community in Iowa to the Deep South of Georgia, it’s Lynn who explains to her why people stop on the street to stare, and it’s Lynn who, with her special way of viewing the world, teaches Katie to look beyond tomorrow, but when Lynn becomes desperately ill, and the whole family begins to fall apart, it is up to Katie to find a way to remind them all that there is always something glittering — kira-kira — in the future.’

Cane by Jean Toomer

‘First published in 1923, Jean Toomer’s Cane is an innovative literary work-part drama, part poetry, part fiction-powerfully evoking black life in the South. Rich in imagery, Toomer’s impressionistic, sometimes surrealistic sketches of Southern rural and urban life are permeated by visions of smoke, sugarcane, dusk, and fire; the northern world is pictured as a harsher reality of asphalt streets. This iconic work of American literature is published with a new afterword by Rudolph Byrd of Emory University and Henry Louis Gates Jr. of Harvard University, who provide groundbreaking biographical information on Toomer, place his writing within the context of American modernism and the Harlem Renaissance, and examine his shifting claims about his own race and his pioneering critique of race as a scientific or biological concept.’

Washington

The Light on the Islands: Tales of a Lighthouse Keeper’s Family in the San Juan Islands by Helen Glidden

‘Readers can once again enjoy Helene Glidden’s classic The Light on the Island, as this 50th Anniversary Edition retells the touching story of a young girl growing up on Patos Island in the San Archipelago of Washington State. Her parents raised thirteen children while her father served as the Patos Island lighthouse keeper from 1905 – 1913. Helene reminisces about the adventure and heartbreak experienced on a beautiful but remote island where smugglers, old timers, and “God” weave in and out of their lives.’

Freaky Green Eyes by Joyce Carol Oates

‘Sometimes Franky Pierson has a hard time dealing with life. Like when her parents separate and her mother vanishes, Franky wants to believe that her mom has simply pulled a disappearing act. Yet deep within herself, a secret part of her she calls Freaky Green Eyes knows that something is terribly wrong. And only Freaky can open Franky’s eyes to the truth.’

A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes from my Kitchen Table by Molly Wizenberg

‘When Molly Wizenberg’s father died of cancer, everyone told her to go easy on herself, to hold off on making any major decisions for a while. But when she tried going back to her apartment in Seattle and returning to graduate school, she knew it wasn’t possible to resume life as though nothing had happened. So she went to Paris, a city that held vivid memories of a childhood trip with her father, of early morning walks on the cobbled streets of the Latin Quarter and the taste of her first pain au chocolat. She was supposed to be doing research for her dissertation, but more often, she found herself peering through the windows of chocolate shops, trekking across town to try a new pâtisserie, or tasting cheeses at outdoor markets, until one evening when she sat in the Luxembourg Gardens reading cookbooks until it was too dark to see, she realized that her heart was not in her studies but in the kitchen. At first, it wasn’t clear where this epiphany might lead. Like her long letters home describing the details of every meal and market, Molly’s blog Orangette started out merely as a pleasant pastime. But it wasn’t long before her writing and recipes developed an international following. Every week, devoted readers logged on to find out what Molly was cooking, eating, reading, and thinking, and it seemed she had finally found her passion. But the story wasn’t over: one reader in particular, a curly-haired, food-loving composer from New York, found himself enchanted by the redhead in Seattle, and their email correspondence blossomed into a long-distance romance. In A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes from My Kitchen Table, Molly Wizenberg recounts a life with the kitchen at its center. From her mother’s pound cake, a staple of summer picnics during her childhood in Oklahoma, to the eggs she cooked for her father during the weeks before his death, food and memories are intimately entwined.’

Steal the North by Heather Brittain Bergstrom

‘Vocally graceful and fearlessly intimate, Steal The North, Heather Brittain Bergstrom’s remarkable debut novel, is a strikingly beautiful portrait of modern identity, faith, family, and love in all its forms. Emmy Nolan is a sheltered and introverted sixteen-year-old living in Sacramento with her mom, Kate, when a phone call comes from an aunt she never knew existed. Fifteen years earlier, Kate had abandoned her only sibling, Beth, fleeing their tiny eastern Washington town and the fundamentalist Baptist church that had condemned her as a whore. Beth, who’s pregnant for what she knows is the last time after countless miscarriages, believes her only hope to delivering the baby is Emmy’s participation in a faith healing ceremony. Emmy reluctantly goes. Despite uncovering her mom’s desperate and painful past, she soon finds she has come home–immediately developing a strong bond with her aunt Beth and feeling destined to the rugged landscape. Then Emmy meets Reuben Tonasket, the Native American boy who lives next door. Though passion-filled and resilient, their love story is eerily mirrorThed by the generation before them, who fear that their own mistakes are doomed to repeat themselves in Emmy and Reuben. This is a marvelously imaginative and deeply felt debut, one whose characters live at nearly intolerable levels of vulnerability. Yet, as fragile as they may seem, Bergstrom has imbued them with a tremendous inner strength, proving that the question of home is a spiritual one, that getting over the past is hope for the future, and that the bond between family is truly unbreakable.’

The Last Town on Earth by Thomas Mullen

‘Set against the backdrop of one of the most virulent epidemics that America ever experienced-the 1918 flu epidemic-Thomas Mullen’s powerful, sweeping first novel is a tale of morality in a time of upheaval. Deep in the mist-shrouded forests of the Pacific Northwest is a small mill town called Commonwealth, conceived as a haven for workers weary of exploitation. For Philip Worthy, the adopted son of the town’s founder, it is a haven in another sense-as the first place in his life he’s had a loving family to call his own. And yet, the ideals that define this outpost are being threatened from all sides. A world war is raging, and with the fear of spies rampant, the loyalty of all Americans is coming under scrutiny. Meanwhile, another shadow has fallen across the region in the form of a deadly illness striking down vast swaths of surrounding communities. When Commonwealth votes to quarantine itself against contagion, guards are posted at the single road leading in and out of town, and Philip Worthy is among them. He will be unlucky enough to be on duty when a cold, hungry, tired-and apparently ill-soldier presents himself at the town’s doorstep begging for sanctuary. The encounter that ensues, and the shots that are fired, will have deafening reverberations throughout Commonwealth, escalating until every human value-love, patriotism, community, family, friendship-not to mention the town’s very survival, is imperiled. Inspired by a little-known historical footnote regarding towns that quarantined themselves during the 1918 epidemic, “The Last Town on Earth” is a remarkably moving and accomplished debut.’

5

Armchair Travelling: Africa

I am a keen traveller in normal times, and am missing the freedom in planning trips, and exploring new places with my boyfriend. At present, like almost everyone else around the world, my only travelling is occurring through books, and watching foreign language films and Scandi-crime dramas on Netflix.

I created the first of the posts in this new series in February, alerting you to eight books set in Korea which I am keen to read, or which I count amongst my favourites. For my second post, I have selected three African countries, merely because I could not find a great deal of books set in each location. My birthday trip to Morocco was cancelled last year, and we could not go ahead with our planned safari to The Gambia and Senegal either; therefore, these are my choices.

The Gambia

Four Guineas by Elspeth Huxley

‘This account of Elspeth Huxley’s travels in Gambia, Sierra Leone, the Gold Coast and Nigeria gilds the Dark Continent–not because the author romanticizes it, but because she clarifies it…its history, superstitions and tribal ways, its beauty and power, its great contrasts and complexities. But this is no postcard and Huxley is not diverted by the exotic scenery and colorful natives. Instead, she pictures a region striving to maintain its heritage while finding a future. It’s like going ahead with one foot on the brake.’

A Season in Sinji by J.L. Carr

A Season in Sinji recreates life on a wartime RAF flying boat station in an African backwater. The dialogue evokes a wide range of characters, and in the bizarre cricket match which acts as a catharsis to the novel’s mounting passions, human dramas and irony are portrayed.’

Senegal

Ambiguous Adventure by Cheikh Hamidou Kane

‘Hailed by Chinua Achebe as one of the greatest African novels ever written, this long-unavailable classic tells the tale of young Samba Diallo, a devout pupil in a Koranic school in Senegal whose parents send him to Paris to study philosophy. But unknown to Samba, it is a desperate attempt by his parents to better understand the French colonial forces transforming their traditional way of life. Instead, for Samba, it seems an exciting adventure, and once in France he excels at his new studies and is delighted by his new “marvelous comprehension and total communion” with the Western world. Soon, though, he finds himself torn between the materialistic secularism and isolation of French civilization and the deeper spiritual influences of his homeland. As Samba puts it: “I have become the two.” Written in an elegant, lyrical prose, Ambiguous Adventure is a masterful expression of the immigrant experience and the repercussions of colonialism, and a great work of literature about the uneasy relationship between Islamic Africa and the West—a relationship more important today than ever before.’

Three Strong Women by Marie NDiaye

‘In this new novel, the first by a black woman ever to win the coveted Prix Goncourt, Marie NDiaye creates a luminous narrative triptych as harrowing as it is beautiful. This is the story of three women who say no: Norah, a French-born lawyer who finds herself in Senegal, summoned by her estranged, tyrannical father to save another victim of his paternity; Fanta, who leaves a modest but contented life as a teacher in Dakar to follow her white boyfriend back to France, where his delusional depression and sense of failure poison everything; and Khady, a penniless widow put out by her husband’s family with nothing but the name of a distant cousin (the aforementioned Fanta) who lives in France, a place Khady can scarcely conceive of but toward which she must now take desperate flight. With lyrical intensity, Marie NDiaye masterfully evokes the relentless denial of dignity, to say nothing of happiness, in these lives caught between Africa and Europe. We see with stunning emotional exactitude how ordinary women discover unimagined reserves of strength, even as their humanity is chipped away. Three Strong Women admits us to an immigrant experience rarely if ever examined in fiction, but even more into the depths of the suffering heart.’

Morocco

Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits by Laila Lalami

‘Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits evokes the grit and enduring grace that is modern Morocco. As four Moroccans illegally cross the Strait of Gibraltar in an inflatable boat headed for Spain, author Laila Lalami asks, What has driven them to risk their lives? And will the rewards prove to be worth the danger? There’s Murad, a gentle, unemployed man who’s been reduced to hustling tourists around Tangier; Halima, who’s fleeing her drunken husband and the slums of Casablanca; Aziz, who must leave behind his devoted wife in hope of securing work in Spain; and Faten, a student and religious fanatic whose faith is at odds with an influential man determined to destroy her future. Sensitively written with beauty and boldness, this is a gripping book about what propels people to risk their lives in search of a better future.’

A House in Fez: Building a Life in the Ancient Heart of Morocco by Suzanna Clarke

‘The Medina — the Old City — of Fez is the best-preserved, medieval walled city in the world. Inside this vibrant Moroccan community, internet cafes and mobile phones coexist with a maze of donkey-trod alleyways, thousand-year-old sewer systems, and Arab-style houses, gorgeous with intricate, if often shabby, mosaic work. While vacationing in Morocco, Suzanna Clarke and her husband, Sandy, are inspired to buy a dilapidated, centuries-old riad in Fez with the aim of restoring it to its original splendor, using only traditional craftsmen and handmade materials. So begins a remarkable adventure that is bewildering, at times hilarious, and ultimately immensely rewarding. A House in Fez chronicles their meticulous restoration, but it is also a journey into Moroccan customs and lore and a window into the lives of its people as friendships blossom. When the riad is finally returned to its former glory, Suzanna finds she has not just restored an old house, but also her soul.’

Destination Unknown by Agatha Christie

‘In Agatha Christie’s gripping international thriller Destination Unknown, a woman at the end of her rope chooses a more exciting way to die when she embarks upon an almost certain suicide mission to find a missing scientist. When a number of leading scientists disappear without a trace, concern grows within the international intelligence community. And the one woman who appears to hold the key to the mystery is dying from injuries sustained in a plane crash. Meanwhile, in a Casablanca hotel room, Hilary Craven prepares to take her own life. But her suicide attempt is about to be interrupted by a man who will offer her an altogether more thrilling way to die…’

Have you read any of these books? Where have you been travelling to through literature lately? If you have any countries which you’re itching to travel to, and wish me to include in this series, please just let me know!

4

Armchair Travelling: Korea

My boyfriend and I had planned to travel to South Korea last year; evidently it did not happen.  Like almost everyone else, the majority of my travelling since March 2020 has been through the medium of books.  I am so keen to go to South Korea – I am obsessed by its food, its films, its fashion – but until I can safely step on a plane and explore properly, I thought I would gather together some books in case anyone wishes to join me in armchair travelling.  I have read the first of these, and count it as one of my favourite novels, but the others are high on my wishlist.

1. Please Look After Mother by Kyung-Sook Shin ***** (review here) 9720572
When sixty-nine-year-old So-nyo is separated from her husband among the crowds of the Seoul subway station, her family begins a desperate search to find her. Yet as long-held secrets and private sorrows begin to reveal themselves, they are forced to wonder: how well did they actually know the woman they called Mom?  Told through the piercing voices and urgent perspectives of a daughter, son, husband, and mother, Please Look After Mom is at once an authentic picture of contemporary life in Korea and a universal story of family love.

6132182. When My Name Was Keoko by Linda Sue Park
Sun-hee and her older brother Tae-yul are proud of their Korean heritage. Yet they live their lives under Japanese occupation. All students must read and write in Japanese and no one can fly the Korean flag. Hardest of all is when the Japanese Emperor forces all Koreans to take Japanese names. Sun-hee and Tae-yul become Keoko and Nobuo. Korea is torn apart by their Japanese invaders during World War II. Everyone must help with war preparations, but it doesn’t mean they are willing to defend Japan. Tae-yul is about to risk his life to help his family, while Sun-hee stays home guarding life-and-death secrets.

3. The Calligrapher’s Daughter by Eugenia Kim 6400109
In early-twentieth-century Korea, Najin Han, the privileged daughter of a calligrapher, longs to choose her own destiny. Smart and headstrong, she is encouraged by her mother—but her stern father is determined to maintain tradition, especially as the Japanese steadily gain control of his beloved country. When he seeks to marry Najin into an aristocratic family, her mother defies generations of obedient wives and instead sends her to serve in the king’s court as a companion to a young princess. But the king is soon assassinated, and the centuries-old dynastic culture comes to its end.  In the shadow of the dying monarchy, Najin begins a journey through increasing oppression that will forever change her world. As she desperately seeks to continue her education, will the unexpected love she finds along the way be enough to sustain her through the violence and subjugation her country continues to face? Spanning thirty years, The Calligrapher’s Daughter is a richly drawn novel in the tradition of Lisa See and Amy Tan about a country torn between ancient customs and modern possibilities, a family ultimately united by love, and a woman who never gives up her search for freedom.

299837114. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
Pachinko follows one Korean family through the generations, beginning in early 1900s Korea with Sunja, the prized daughter of a poor yet proud family, whose unplanned pregnancy threatens to shame them all. Deserted by her lover, Sunja is saved when a young tubercular minister offers to marry and bring her to Japan.  So begins a sweeping saga of an exceptional family in exile from its homeland and caught in the indifferent arc of history. Through desperate struggles and hard-won triumphs, its members are bound together by deep roots as they face enduring questions of faith, family, and identity.

5. I Have the Right to Destroy Myself by Young-Ha Kim 797192
A spectral, nameless narrator haunts the lost and wounded of big-city Seoul, suggesting solace in suicide. Wandering through the bright lights of their high-urban existence, C and K are brothers who fall in love with the same woman – Se-yeon. As their lives intersect, they tear at each other in a struggle to find connection in their fast-paced, atomized world.  Dreamlike and cinematic, I Have the Right to Destroy Myself brilliantly affirms Young-ha Kim as Korea’s leading young literary master.

175915606. My Son’s Girlfriend by Mi-Kyung Jung
At once an ironic portrayal of contemporary Korea and an intimate exploration of heartache, alienation, and nostalgia, this collection of seven short stories has earned the author widespread critical acclaim.

7. The Guest by Hwang Sok-Yong 1447640
Based on actual events, The Guest is a profound portrait of a divided people haunted by a painful past, and a generation’s search for reconciliation.  During the Korean War, Hwanghae Province in North Korea was the setting of a gruesome fifty-two day massacre. In an act of collective amnesia the atrocities were attributed to American military, but in truth they resulted from malicious battling between Christian and Communist Koreans. Forty years later, Ryu Yosop, a minister living in America returns to his home village, where his older brother once played a notorious role in the bloodshed. Besieged by vivid memories and visited by the troubled spirits of the deceased, Yosop must face the survivors of the tragedy and lay his brother’s soul to rest.  Faulkner-like in its intense interweaving narratives, The Guest is a daring and ambitious novel from a major figure in world literature.

175915728. No One Writes Back by Eun-Jin Jang
Communication—or the lack thereof—is the subject of this sly update of the picaresque novel. No One Writes Back is the story of a young man who leaves home with only his blind dog, an MP3 player, and a book, traveling aimlessly for three years, from motel to motel, meeting people on the road. Rather than learn the names of his fellow travelers—or even invent nicknames for them—he assigns them numbers. There’s 239, who once dreamed of being a poet, but who now only reads her poems to a friend in a coma; there’s 109, who rides trains endlessly because of a broken heart; and 32, who’s already decided to commit suicide. The narrator writes letters to these men and women in the hope that he can console them in their various miseries, as well as keep a record of his own experiences: “A letter is like a journal entry for me, except that it gets sent to other people.” No one writes back, of course, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t some hope that one of them will, someday…

Have you read any of these?  Which have piqued your interest?  I am also keen to make this ‘Armchair Travelling’ a mini series on the blog, so please let me know if you’d like recommendations from a particular country.

0

Three Spotlight Books: ‘Cora Vincent’, ‘Crumbs’, and ‘The Haunting of Strawberry Water’

Spotlight Books have recently published a series of six attractive short volumes, three of them poetry collections, and three of which consist of a single story.  It is the latter – Cora Vincent by Georgina Aboud, Crumbs by Ana Tewson-Božić, and The Haunting of Strawberry Water by Tara Gould – which I am reviewing.  I have chosen to collect my thoughts on these stories together in one review, as I imagine that readers interested in one will want to collect them all.  In these volumes, Spotlight, which is a collaboration between Creative Future, Myriad Editions, and New Writing South, has essentially brought six different underrepresented voices to the fore.

 

Cora Vincent by Georgina Aboud **** 9781912408443

Cora Vincent is essentially a character study, in which a ‘derailed actress’ living in Hove is offered a break, quite by chance, with a role in a West End theatre.  This offers her the opportunity to leave her past behind. The story is, says its blurb, ‘set in a country split by politics and disjointed through lives that are increasingly isolated and lonely’.  Indeed, the tale is set amongst the turmoil of Brexit, and examines – although not always in the greatest of detail, given the story’s length – the things which divide us.

Aboud is an award-winning short story writer, whose work, whilst underrepresented, garners a lot of praise.  Cathy Galvin calls Cora Vincent ‘startling and considered’, and notes Aboud as an ‘important new voice’ in literature.  Other reviewers of the story concur.  Susannah Waters writes that ‘very few people put words together on the page as beautifully as this’, and Tom Lee that ‘Georgina Aboud has a voice and vision all her own’.

Cora Vincent opens vividly, on the advent of a new year: ‘Ten.  Nine.  Eight.  The old pier stands undressed, but defiant still, and there’s a boy in fingerless gloves who does a cartwheel, and a girl with a face punctured by piercings and a glittering in her eyes…  And the dog wears one of those jackets that I hope stops her being scared, and I have a whisky tang on my tongue and a brine wash through my hair…’.

We are catapulted into Cora’s narrative, and soon understand quite how aware she is of her own physicality, and the space which she takes up in the world.  She goes on to say: ‘Peel back my skin though, and the truth idles everywhere: in glistening leg muscles and shoulder blades that could, if I say so myself, belong in an anatomy textbook.  There’s a truth in my never-inhabited uterus.  In my fists.  In a jagged crack that runs across my forearm, in a missing tooth lost at a disco, and a lost appendix, dug out from the abyss.’

We move back and forth from 2019 to pivotal moments in Cora’s life.  In her present day, she is taking up the first theatre role which she has been given in years; she says that she owes her newfound job to her ‘totally fudged’ CV.  When she receives the phonecall to say that another actor has broken her arm, and could she stand in, Cora feels ‘a prickle of something, maybe hope, growing inside me.’

Aboud’s prose is both richly layered and easy to read.  Her descriptions feel original; on Cora’s first day of rehearsal, for instance, Aboud writes: ‘And we stand in this thin-skinned room, with tooth-coloured walls, making childlike sounds, and the strip lighting buzzes with homecoming.’  I found parts of Aboud’s writing startling: ‘Fancying someone feels like ulcers, of being trapped in a falling lift.  It’s an acceleration where nerves eat each other and hearts are held in teeth.’

Cora Vincent feels very thoroughly done, and encompasses what feels like a highly realistic protagonist.  There is a lot of consideration which has been given to both plot and protagonist, and Aboud writes believably of how and why Cora has turned out the way she is.  There are thoughtful passages, and a lot of focus upon a past relationship which Cora had with a man named Kit: ‘We are tethered to each other by weighted strings that are snipped and hastily re-tied back together and snipped again, by one or both of us’.  The non-chronological structure, and the way in which Aboud flits back and forth in time, worked really well here.  Cora Vincent is a really satisfying story, and I very much look forward to reading more of Aboud’s work in future.

 

9781912408405Crumbs by Ana Tewson-Božić **

I must admit that Ana Tewson-Božić’s Crumbs did not sound appealing to me as a reader, as I tend to avoid everything science-fiction.  However, I was keen to read all of the Spotlight stories, in part to see how they differ.  The protagonist of this short story is a teenage girl named Julja, whose ‘games take a serious turn as she becomes inducted into a computer cult.  The surge of dopamine in her brain connects her with psychic aliens and chemical conspiracies, sordid and secret.’

On the whole, the plot sounded strange to me, but I did admire the way in which the author uses it as a frame to explore psychosis. Tewson-Božić herself has spent ‘significant time in mental institutions’, and has been diagnosed with schizo-affective disorder.  She explores the darker side of mental health, says reviewer John O’Donoghue, ‘in a kind of distressed, demented prose which from time to time lets in shafts of reality…’.

Tewson-Božić’s writing, indeed, is strange, and quite beguiling.  At the outset of the story, she writes: ‘In this place, I see heaven.  I am buoyed by the souls of the relatives in their homes around me, buoyed by the fact that they’d known and liked me.  With these powers, I see fragile bodies rise through a church steeple and crumble into ash against the ceiling.  I see great alien eyes and tongues of steely poison poised to greet us at our deaths.  They see me back and I never felt so much terror.’

Throughout Crumbs, the prose follows a similar structure, and I found that a lot of elements of the story – as well as the plot as a whole – made little sense.  There is barely any cohesion within it, and at points I had no idea what was happening.  This may be a good representation of what one feels when suffering with psychosis, but it alienated me as a reader.

Crumbs has been split into very short sections.  As I have mentioned above, these are rather abstract.  Tewson-Božić certainly plays on different literary forms throughout her story, but these are not tied together at all.  Part of the story is narrated from a bed on a psychiatric ward; other sections seem to deal with Julja’s absorption into the cult: ‘At some point the sleep deprivation and the journey into a world beyond my means, blew out my brains and I was taken.’

I am sure that Crumbs will find its audience, but for me the story felt a little too fragmented to make any sense.  When the story moves from Earth into space, I was lost completely.  At no point did I feel connected to the story, or to its protagonist.  Whilst some of the prose did intrigue me – for instance, ‘I woke up standing in the middle of the park clutching a Jack of Hearts with an eye scrawled on it in marker.  I was looking at the stars and spinning.’ – these sections ended abruptly, were not elaborated upon, and I was still left none the wiser.  Crumbs is well written, but the plot felt chaotic at times.  I suppose that Tewson-Božić’s story could be seen as illuminating in its way, providing a window into mental illness, but I would have preferred something a little more cohesive and connected.

 

The Haunting of Strawberry Water by Tara Gould **** 9781912408504

In The Haunting of Strawberry Water, short story writer and playwright Tara Gould focuses upon a new mother ‘in the throes of post-natal depression’.  The protagonist’s pregnancy has thrown up past turmoil, in which she is trying to understand why she herself was abandoned as a baby ‘by the mother she never knew’.  Gould’s story sounded wonderfully mysterious; it is set in a 1920s bungalow in the countryside, in which ‘supernatural forces begin to take hold in this gripping and heartrending tale of the uncanny.’

The Haunting of Strawberry Water has been well reviewed, and the following comments made the story appeal to me even more.  Jeff Noon believes that ‘Tara Gould knows an essential truth, that ghosts exist in the darkness of the mind.  And that sometimes those ghosts can exit the mind and take up residence in the world…’.  Hannah Vincent notes Gould’s ‘elegant and profound’ story, which she sees as much of a piece of nature writing as ‘a compelling ghost story, and an expertly handled meditation on the prickly nature of intimate relationships.’

The unnamed narrator’s childhood bungalow home is named Strawberry Water, after a phenomenon which occurs in certain weathers ‘in late spring and summer’ to the river which runs along the bottom of the garden.  In an odd twist of fate, the house comes up for sale, and she and her husband decide to move there from their cramped city apartment with their baby daughter, Freya.  This throws up a lot of memories for the narrator.  When they first move there, she relates the following: ‘In the woods on the other side of the river, I looked at the grey collection of shapes between the black silhouettes of the trees and I thought I saw a dark form flitting chaotically between them.  No doubt a fox or a deer, but it sent an unpleasant shiver through me.’

The story opens with the single Polaroid picture which the narrator has of her mother: ‘All that’s visible is a section of leg where the knee pushes forward, the point of a black, shiny shoe protruding at the base of the wooden door, and three slim fingers clutching the door half way up.  The rest is simply the vague impression of the form and presence of a person.’  She has never seen her mother’s face, even in a photograph.  As a child, she touchingly collects pebbles from the river, which ‘represented a piece of information about my mother that I’d gleaned over the years.’  She goes on to say: ‘I needed desperately to believe that she was decent.  She had left her husband and her baby daughter, but perhaps she had secret reasons.’

We are led from the narrator’s motherless childhood into the more stable period of her twenties, in which she married and fell pregnant: ‘During the whole of my pregnancy,’ she tells us, ‘I was unquestioningly happy – a deep contentment I had never before experienced…  I felt connected.  I felt… never alone.’  After a difficult birth, in which she states ‘nature revealed her true unmodified self to me’, she visualises herself as follows: ‘… I saw myself putting on a bathrobe and slippers and escaping out of that window, and down the fire escape and away from my baby and the impossible job of being a perfect mother.’

Gould successfully uses a series of short vignettes to weave the story together.  The narrative is interconnected, as one vignette leads into the next.  Gould’s prose is beautiful, and her story feels like such an honest one, as she relates the everyday struggles of motherhood.  Once the more sinister elements start to creep into the narrative – strange noises heard around the house, the baby being unable to settle – I was absolutely invested in the story.  By this point, I felt as though I really knew what moved and motivated the bewildered protagonist, and the fear she had surrounding her baby.  The inclusion of herself being motherless added an interesting element to the story, and I felt as though it was well explored by Gould.

The Haunting of Strawberry Water is a highly successful short story, which does and says a lot.  It is an enjoyable piece of prose, which is beguiling from start to finish; I only wish it had been longer.

 

1

The Book Trail: From Tangerines to Sugar

This edition of the Book Trail takes us from a thriller set in Tangier, to a ghost story which takes place on the English and Welsh border.  As ever, I have used the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool on Goodreads to generate this list.

 

1. Tangerine by Christine Mangan 35255712
‘The last person Alice Shipley expected to see since arriving in Tangier with her new husband was Lucy Mason. After the accident at Bennington, the two friends—once inseparable roommates—haven’t spoken in over a year. But there Lucy was, trying to make things right and return to their old rhythms. Perhaps Alice should be happy. She has not adjusted to life in Morocco, too afraid to venture out into the bustling medinas and oppressive heat. Lucy—always fearless and independent—helps Alice emerge from her flat and explore the country. But soon a familiar feeling starts to overtake Alice—she feels controlled and stifled by Lucy at every turn. Then Alice’s husband, John, goes missing, and Alice starts to question everything around her: her relationship with her enigmatic friend, her decision to ever come to Tangier, and her very own state of mind.  Tangerine is a sharp dagger of a book—a debut so tightly wound, so replete with exotic imagery and charm, so full of precise details and extraordinary craftsmanship, it will leave you absolutely breathless.’

 

2. The Night Visitor by Lucy Atkins
‘Professor Olivia Sweetman has worked hard to achieve the life she loves, with a high-flying career as a TV presenter and historian, three children and a talented husband. But as she stands before a crowd at the launch of her new bestseller she can barely pretend to smile. Her life has spiralled into deceit and if the truth comes out, she will lose everything.  Only one person knows what Olivia has done. Vivian Tester is the socially awkward sixty-year-old housekeeper of a Sussex manor who found the Victorian diary on which Olivia’s book is based. She has now become Olivia’s unofficial research assistant. And Vivian has secrets of her own.  As events move between London, Sussex and the idyllic South of France, the relationship between these two women grows more entangled and complex. Then a bizarre act of violence changes everything.’

 

187618763. Touched by Joanna Briscoe
‘Rowena Crale and her family have moved from London.  They now live in a small English village in a cottage which seems to be resisting all attempts at renovation.  Walls ooze damp, stains come through layers of wallpaper, celings sag.  And strange noises – voices – emanate from empty rooms.  As Rowena struggles with the upheaval of builders while trying to be a dutiful wife and a good mother to her young children, her life starts to disintegrate.  And then, one by one, her daughters go missing …’

 

4. As She Left It by Catriona McPherson
‘When she was twelve years old, Opal Jones escaped her mother’s endless drinking. Now, returning to their small Leeds cottage after her mum’s death, Opal feels like she’s gone back in time. Nosey Mrs. Pickess is still polishing her windows to a sparkle. Fishbo, Opal’s ancient music teacher, still plays trumpet with his band. And much to Opal’s delight, her favorite neighbor, Margaret Reid, still keeps an eye on things from the walk in front of her house.  But a tragedy has struck Mote Street. Margaret’s grandson, Craig, disappeared some ten years ago, and every day he’s not found, shame and sorrow settle deeper into the neighborhood’s forgotten corners. As the door she closed on her own dark past begins to open, Opal uncovers more secrets than she can bear about the people who were once her friends.’

 

5. The Art of Drowning by Frances Fyfield 544517
‘Rachel Doe is a shy accountant at a low ebb in life when she meets charismatic Ivy Schneider, nee Wiseman, at her evening class and her life changes for the better. Ivy is her polar oppositte: strong, six years her senior and the romantic survivor of drug addiction, homelessness and the death of her child. Ivy does menial shift work, beholden to no one, and she inspires life; as do her farming parents, with their ramshackle house and its swan- filled lake, the lake where Ivy’s daughter drowned. As Rachel grows closer to them all she learns how Ivy came to be married to Carl, the son of a WWII prisoner, as well as the true nature of that marriage to a bullying and ambitious lawyer who has become a judge and who denies her access to her surviving child. Rachel wants justice for Ivy, but Ivy has another agenda and Rachel’s naive sense of fair play is no match for the manipulative qualities in the Wisemen women.’

 

6. What Lies Within by Tom Vowler
‘Living in a remote Devon farmhouse, Anna and her family have always been close to nature, surrounded by the haunting beauty of the moor. But when a convict escapes from nearby Dartmoor prison, their isolation suddenly begins to feel more claustrophobic than free. Fearing for her children’s safety, Anna’s behaviour becomes increasingly irrational. But why is she so distant from her kind husband Robert, and why does she suspect something sinister of her son Paul? All teenagers have their difficult phases…  Meanwhile, a young idealistic teacher has just started her first job, determined to ‘make a difference’. But when she is brutally attacked by one of her students, her version of events is doubted by even those closest to her. Struggling to deal with the terrible consequences, she does what she can to move on and start afresh.  As the two narratives converge, the tension builds to a devastating denouement, shattering everything you thought you believed about nature, nurture and the true meaning of family.’

 

130824497. When Nights Were Cold by Susanna Jones
‘As Queen Victoria’s reign reaches its end, Grace Farringdon dreams of polar explorations and of escape from her stifling home with her protective parents and eccentric, agoraphobic sister. But when Grace secretly applies to Candlin, a women’s college filled with intelligent women, she finally feels her ambitions beginning to take shape.’

 

8. Sugar Hall by Tiffany Murray
‘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.’

 

Have you read any of these books?  Which pique your interest?

Purchase from The Book Depository

0

The Book Trail: From ‘Fair Play’ to ‘The Queen of Persia’

I am beginning this edition of The Book Trail with a short novel by one of my favourite authors of all time.  As ever, I have used the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool on Goodreads in order to generate this list.

1. Fair Play by Tove Jansson 8915857
Fair Play is the type of love story that is rarely told, a revelatory depiction of contentment, hard-won and exhilarating.  Mari is a writer and Jonna is an artist, and they live at opposite ends of a big apartment building, their studios connected by a long attic passageway. They have argued, worked, and laughed together for decades. Yet they’ve never really stopped taking each other by surprise. Fair Play shows us Mari and Jona’s intertwined lives as they watch Fassbinder films and Westerns, critique each other’s work, spend time on a solitary island (recognizable to readers of Jansson’s The Summer Book), travel through the American Southwest, and turn life into nothing less than art. ‘

 

2. Summer Will Show by Sylvia Townsend Warner
‘Sophia Willoughby, a young Englishwoman from an aristocratic family and a person of strong opinions and even stronger will, has packed her cheating husband off to Paris. He can have his tawdry mistress. She intends to devote herself to the serious business of raising her two children in proper Tory fashion.  Then tragedy strikes: the children die, and Sophia, in despair, finds her way to Paris, arriving just in time for the revolution of 1848. Before long she has formed the unlikeliest of close relations with Minna, her husband’s sometime mistress, whose dramatic recitations, based on her hair-raising childhood in czarist Russia, electrify audiences in drawing rooms and on the street alike. Minna, “magnanimous and unscrupulous, fickle, ardent, and interfering,” leads Sophia on a wild adventure through bohemian and revolutionary Paris, in a story that reaches an unforgettable conclusion amidst the bullets, bloodshed, and hope of the barricades.  Sylvia Townsend Warner was one of the most original and inventive of twentieth-century English novelists. At once an adventure story, a love story, and a novel of ideas, Summer Will Show is a brilliant reimagining of the possibilities of historical fiction.’

 

899153. Eustace and Hilda by L.P. Hartley
‘The three books gathered together as Eustace and Hilda explore a brother and sister’s lifelong relationship. Hilda, the older child, is both self-sacrificing and domineering, as puritanical as she is gorgeous; Eustace is a gentle, dreamy, pleasure-loving boy: the two siblings could hardly be more different, but they are also deeply devoted. And yet as Eustace and Hilda grow up and seek to go their separate ways in a world of power and position, money and love, their relationship is marked by increasing pain.  L. P. Hartley’s much-loved novel, the magnum opus of one of twentieth-century England’s best writers, is a complex and spellbinding work: a comedy of upper-class manners; a study in the subtlest nuances of feeling; a poignant reckoning with the ironies of character and fate. Above all, it is about two people who cannot live together or apart, about the ties that bind—and break.’

 

4. The Mirador: Dreamed Memories of Irene Nemirovsky by Her Daughter by Elisabeth Gille
‘Élisabeth Gille was only five when the Gestapo arrested her mother, and she grew up remembering next to nothing of her. Her mother was a figure, a name, Irène Némirovsky, a once popular novelist, a Russian émigré from an immensely rich family, a Jew who didn’t consider herself one and who even contributed to collaborationist periodicals, and a woman who died in Auschwitz because she was a Jew. To her daughter she was a tragic enigma and a stranger.  It was to come to terms with that stranger that Gille wrote, in The Mirador, her mother’s memoirs. The first part of the book, dated 1929, the year David Golder made Némirovsky famous, takes us back to her difficult childhood in Kiev and St. Petersburg. Her father is doting, her mother a beautiful monster, while Irene herself is bookish and self-absorbed. There are pogroms and riots, parties and excursions, then revolution, from which the family flees to France, a country of “moderation, freedom, and generosity,” where at last she is happy.  Some thirteen years later Irène picks up her pen again. Everything has changed. Abandoned by friends and colleagues, she lives in the countryside and waits for the knock on the door. Written a decade before the publication of Suite Française made Irène Némirovsky famous once more (something Gille did not live to see), The Mirador is a haunted and a haunting book, an unflinching reckoning with the tragic past, and a triumph not only of the imagination but of love.’

 

5. The World As I Found It by Bruce Duffy 776609
‘This novel centers around Ludwig Wittgenstein, one of the most powerfully magnetic philosophers of our time–brilliant, tortured, mercurial, forging his own solitary path while leaving a permanent mark on all around him.’

 

6. Indian Summer by William Dean Howells
‘One of the most charming and memorable romantic comedies in American literature, William Dean Howells’s Indian Summer tells of a season in the life of Theodore Colville. Colville, just turned forty, has spent years as a successful midwestern newspaper publisher. Now he sells his business and heads for Italy, where as a young man he had dreamed of a career as an architect and fallen hopelessly in love. In Florence, Colville runs into Lina Bowen, sometime best friend of the woman who jilted him and the vivacious survivor of an unhappy marriage. He also meets her young visitor, twenty-year-old Imogene Graham—lovely, earnest to a fault, and brimming with the excitement of her first encounter with the great world.  The drama that plays out among these three gifted and well-meaning people against the backdrop of Florence, the brilliance of their repartee, and the accumulating burden of their mutual misunderstandings make for a comedy of errors that is as winning as it is wise.’

 

18508567. Testing the Current by William McPherson
‘Growing up in a small upper Midwestern town in the late 1930s, young Tommy MacAllister is scarcely aware of the Depression, much less the rumblings of war in Europe. For his parents and their set, life seems to revolve around dinners and dancing at the country club, tennis dates and rounds of golf, holiday parties, summers on The Island, and the many sparkling occasions full of people and drinks and food and laughter. With his curiosity and impatience to grow up, however, Tommy will soon come to glimpse something darker beneath the genteel complacency: the embarrassment of poor relations; the subtle (and not so subtle) slighting of the black or American Indian “help”; the discovery that not everybody in the club was Episcopalian; the mockery of President Roosevelt; the messy mechanics of sex and death; and “the commandment they talked least about in Sunday school,” adultery.  In this remarkable 1984 debut novel, the Pulitzer Prize–winning book critic William McPherson subtly leavens his wide-eyed protagonist’s perspective with mature reflection and wry humor and surrounds him with a sizable cast of vibrant characters, creating a scrupulously observed, kaleidoscopic portrait that will shimmer in readers’ minds long after the final page is turned.’

 

8. During the Reign of the Queen of Persia by Joan Chase
‘A story of 20th-century womanhood, of Gram, the Queen of Persia herself, who rules a house where five daughters and four granddaughters spin out the tragedies and triumphs of rural life in the 1950s.’

 

Have you read any of these books?  Which have piqued your interest?

Purchase from The Book Depository

0

TBR Tracker Update: September

I made great strides with condensing my TBR further in September, and am hoping that by the end of October, I will have zero books on my to-read pile.  I am aiming to get down to zero so that any books which I acquire can be read immediately.

At present, the tomes which are on my TBR pile have been languishing there for around two to three years, which seems ridiculous to me.  I know that a lot of readers have huge TBRs, filled with books which they acquired ten years ago and haven’t yet got to, but I’m keen to rekindle the fizzy feelings which I get upon acquiring a new book and reading it immediately, whilst I’m still incredibly interested in it.

During September, I added no books to my TBR, and I am very proud of myself for this.  There are a few new releases which I am keen to get to, but I’m going to either request them from the library, or add them to my Christmas list and hope for the best.

As with last month’s TBR tracker, you can find reviews of the books which I read during September, as well as an updated to-read list, below.

 

Thomas Hardy by Claire Tomalin hardy1
I am currently reading, and very much enjoying, this tome.  I started it before going on a long weekend to Pisa, and have decided that dipping in and out of it whilst I have another book on the go is probably the best way to read it.

 

9781444707762Cold Light by Jenn Ashworth ***
I have read a lot of Jenn Ashworth’s work in the past, and have really enjoyed it. I was thus keen to get to her debut novel, Cold Light. Although the story held my interest throughout, I never felt entirely gripped by it. I guessed what were supposed to be the major plot points very early on, and found that the novel sadly did not meet my expectations.

 

The Seabird’s Cry: The Lives and Loves of Puffins, Gannets and Other Ocean 9780008165703Voyagers by Adam Nicolson *****
I received Adam Nicolson’s The Seabird’s Cry: The Lives and Loves of Puffins, Gannets and Other Ocean Voyagers for Christmas, and although it took me some months to read, I was keen to get to it. I adore nature writing, and have wanted to read Nicolson’s work for a long time, and this seemed like the perfect introduction to it. I found The Seabird’s Cry utterly fascinating, and learnt so much from it. Beautifully descriptive, and with a wealth of wonderful research, this is a must-read for any nature lover.

 

9780099594024Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood ****
I had wanted to read Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed, her interpretation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, for such a long time. I decided not to write a full-length review of the novel as there are so many around, but wanted to record a few thoughts, at least.  I imagined that a retelling written by Atwood would be very clever, and it is. She retains enough of the original story for it to be recognisable, but certainly puts her own spin onto the plot. Its protagonist is believable, as are, indeed, its secondary characters. The prose throughout is engaging, and the elements of witty humour augment the more maudlin parts of the story. There are some great ideas within Hag-Seed, and the whole thing comes together splendidly.

 

The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather *** 9780241338162
I ended up reading Willa Cather’s Great Plains trilogy out of order, but found that it did not actually matter.  The Song of the Lark is the second novel in the series, and the final one which I got to. Cather’s novel is so well written, and is filled with exquisite prose, but the story feels rather thin on the ground in places, and did not really hold my attention. Whilst I found Thea Kronborg quite intriguing at first, I became less and less interested in the protagonist as the novel went on. I love Cather’s writing style, but from my experience, feel that her novellas and short stories are far more successful than her longer books.

 

Travellers in the Third Reich by Julia Boyd and The Priory by Dorothy Whipple were both five star reads for me.  Full-length reviews of both will be published early next year.

 

My current TBR stands as follows:

  1. The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann 9780141198927
  2. The Diviners by Margaret Laurence
  3. North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell
  4. Les Parisiennes: How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved and Died in the 1940s by Anne Sebba
  5. Sweet Caress by William Boyd (Kindle)

 

Current total: 5
Goal for the end of October: 0

4

The Book Trail: From Rosamond Lehmann to F. Tennyson Jesse

This particular edition of The Book Trail begins with a wonderful sequel by Rosamond Lehmann, printed by Virago Modern Classics.  As ever, I have used the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool on Goodreads in order to put this list together.

 

1. The Weather in the Streets by Rosamond Lehmann 1768393
‘Taking up where Invitation to the Waltz left off, The Weather in the Streets shows us Olivia Curtis ten years older, a failed marriage behind her, thinner, sadder, and apprently not much wiser. A chance encounter on a train with a man who enchanted her as a teenager leads to a forbidden love affair and a new world of secret meetings, brief phone calls, and snatched liaisons in anonymous hotel rooms. Years ahead of its time when first published, this subtle and powerful novel shocked even the most stalwart Lehmann fans with its searing honesty and passionate portrayal of clandestine love.’

 

5481462. Love for Lydia by H.E. Bates
Love for Lydia was the first novel with an English setting that H.E. Bates wrote after the second world war, and it was his own favourite among his Northamptonshire novels. The Northants setting becomes the background both ugly and beautiful for the story of a young girl, the daughter of a decaying aristocratic household, and her lovers, of which the most important is the narrator himself.  Published in 1952, it is essentially an autobiographical novel, and, though much of his fiction reflects his own life and background, this probably contains more than in any other piece of fiction – That may explain why it is such a satisfying book. Bates spent a brief time as a reporter on the Northamptonshire Chronicle, and there are other echoes of the author’s personal experiences here in the character of the narrator, Richardson. Lydia, it seems, is based on, or was inspired by, a young lady he once glimpsed on Rushden railway station – “a tallish, dark, proud, aloof young girl in a black cloak lined with scarlet”. Lydia in the story is the sheltered and selfish Aspen daughter, and the novel chronicles her affairs with Richardson and two of the other young men. It has been described as a novel of “a young man’s struggle to understand and resolve himself to a formidable world of change and uncertainty”, and the novel ends in his committing himself to Lydia in a much more mature and lasting way than he could have done at the beginning of the story.’

 

3. The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen 195987
‘In The Heat of the Day, Elizabeth Bowen brilliantly recreates the tense and dangerous atmosphere of London during the bombing raids of World War II.  Many people have fled the city, and those who stayed behind find themselves thrown together in an odd intimacy born of crisis. Stella Rodney is one of those who chose to stay. But for her, the sense of impending catastrophe becomes acutely personal when she discovers that her lover, Robert, is suspected of selling secrets to the enemy, and that the man who is following him wants Stella herself as the price of his silence. Caught between these two men, not sure whom to believe, Stella finds her world crumbling as she learns how little we can truly know of those around us.’

 

17769934. One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes
‘It’s a summer’s day in 1946. The English village of Wealding is no longer troubled by distant sirens, yet the rustling coils of barbed wire are a reminder that something, some quality of life, has evaporated. Together again after years of separation, Laura and Stephen Marshall and their daughter Victoria are forced to manage without “those anonymous caps and aprons who lived out of sight and pulled the strings.” Their rambling garden refuses to be tamed, the house seems perceptibly to crumble. But alone on a hillside, as evening falls, Laura comes to see what it would have meant if the war had been lost, and looks to the future with a new hope and optimism. First published in 1947, this subtle, finely wrought novel presents a memorable portrait of the aftermath of war, its effect upon a marriage, and the gradual but significant change in the nature of English middle-class life.’

 

5. The Soul of Kindness by Elizabeth Taylor 1707951
‘”Here I am!” Flora called to Richard as she went downstairs. For a second, Meg felt disloyalty. It occurred to her of a sudden that Flora was always saying that, and that it was in the tone of one giving a lovely present. She was bestowing herself.’ The soul of kindness is what Flora believes herself to be. Tall, blonde and beautiful, she appears to have everything under control — her home, her baby, her husband Richard, her friend Meg, Kit, Meg’s brother, who has always adored Flora, and Patrick the novelist and domestic pet. Only the bohemian painter Liz refuses to become a worshipper at the shrine. Flora entrances them all, dangling visions of happiness and success before their spellbound eyes. All are bewitched by this golden tyrant, all conspire to protect her from what she really is. All, that is, except the clear-eyed Liz: it is left to her to show them that Flora’s kindness is the sweetest poison of them all.’

 

3971136. A Compass Error by Sybille Bedford
‘In this sequel to The Favourite of the Gods, seventeen-year-old Flavia, on her own in the south of France in the late 1930s, lives with the confidence and ardor of youth. She knows her destiny-it lies at Oxford, where she will begin a great career of public service. But this view of herself is at odds with reality; it springs from ideas she has of her idolized English father and of her blessed Italian mother, Constanza. Only when she is caught up in an intrigue that is to determine the fate of those she most loves does she begins to discover her own true nature-even as she loses the bearings of her moral compass.’

 

7. The Shutter of Snow by Emily Holmes Coleman 1393098
‘In a prose form as startling as its content, “The Shutter of Snow” portrays the post-partum psychosis of Marthe Gail, who after giving birth to her son, is committed to an insane asylum. Believing herself to be God, she maneuvers through an institutional world that is both sad and terrifying, echoing the worlds of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “The Snake Pit.”  Based upon the author’s own experience after the birth of her son in 1924, “The Shutter of Snow” retains all the energy it had when first published in 1930.’

 

1396478. A Pin to See the Peepshow by F. Tennyson Jesse
‘A Pin to See the Peepshow is a fictionalized account of the life of Edith Thompson, one of the three main players in the “Ilford murder” case of 1922.’

 

Which of these books have you read?  Do any pique your interest?

Purchase from The Book Depository

3

Penguin Moderns: Vladimir Nabokov and Wendell Berry

Lance by Vladimir Nabokov **** (#49) 9780241339527
I will begin this review by saying that of the work of Nabokov’s which I have read in the past, I have not enjoyed it anywhere near as much as most people seem to.  I had never encountered his short stories before picking up Lance.  All of these ‘dazzling stories of obsession, mania and an extra-terrestrial nightmare feature all of the wit, dexterity and inventiveness that are the hallmarks of Nabokov’s genius’, and were published between 1931 and 1951.  ‘The Aurelian’ was originally written in Russian, and appears in translation here by Peter Pertzov in collaboration with the author.  The other two stories – ‘Signs and Symbols’ and ‘Lance’ – were first written in English.

The three tales collected here are all rather sad.  ‘The Aurelian’ follows protagonist Paul Pilgram, who has taken over the running of his parents’ shop in Berlin.  Of Pilgram, Nabokov writes: ‘… as a boy he already feverishly swapped specimens with collectors, and after his parents died butterflies reigned supreme in the dim little shop.’  He is an entomologist, who knows so much about species all around the world, but has never travelled farther than Berlin’s suburbs.  His wish is to see butterflies living in their natural habitat.  I will say no more lest I give any of the story away, but suffice to say, I very much enjoyed reading it.  It is the first time in which  I have ever felt fully engaged with Nabokov’s work.

The second haunting story, ‘Signs and Symbols’, takes as its focus a suicidal young man living in a sanatorium, and the effects which he has upon his family: ‘The last time their son had tried to take his life, his method had been, in the doctor’s words, a masterpiece of inventiveness; he would have succeeded, had not an envious fellow patient thought he was learning to fly – and stopped him.  What he really wanted to do was to tear a hole in his world and escape.’  I found such descriptions touching and evocative, and indeed, this style of writing and character reveal threads through all three tales in Lance.  The stories are very human, and I now have an interest to read more of Nabokov’s work in the near future.

The third titular story was the only one in this collection which I did not much enjoy.  However, that may be because it is so firmly rooted in science fiction, something which I am not at all a fan of.  I found it interesting enough to read, but it was certainly peculiar.  Had this surprising collection featured only the first two stories, I certainly would have given it a five star rating.

 

9780241337561Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer by Wendell Berry ***
The fiftieth, and final, Penguin Modern is Wendell Berry’s Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer, which features two essays.  The title essay was published for the first time in Harper’s magazine in 1987, and the second – ‘Feminism, the Body and the Machine’, which provides a reflection upon it – in 1990.

In the first essay, as is evident in its title, Berry argues his case for writing ‘in the day time, without electric light’, and with only paper and a pencil.  He says, of his decision: ‘I do not see that computers are bringing us one step nearer to anything that does matter to me: peace, economic justice, ecological health, political honesty, family and community stability, good work.’  He also points out that he very much enjoys the collaborative experience which he shares with his wife, who types up his work on a Royal Standard typewriter: ‘Thus (and I think this is typical of present-day technological innovation), what would be superseded would be not only something, but somebody.  In order to be technologically up-to-date as a writer, I would have to sacrifice an association that I am dependent upon and that I treasure.’

This first essay ends with a transcription of several responses received after its publication, and Berry’s quite witty response.  In the second, and more extended response essay, Berry writes in a measured way of those who chose to send letters to him, and the overriding view that he was both exploiting and oppressing his wife by getting her to type his work.  Here, he reflects: ‘That feminists or any other advocates of human liberty and dignity should resort to insult and injustice is regrettable.  It is also regrettable that all of the feminist attacks on my essay implicitly deny the validity of two decent and probably necessary possibilities: marriage as a state of mutual help, and the household as an economy.’

I found this short collection easy to read, and found that Berry argues his various points succinctly, although perhaps a little briefly at times, throughout.  His reasoning, in some ways, feels quite ahead of its time.  He touches upon many themes here, from materialism and relationships to technology and values.  Berry’s essays have such a nice message at their heart: ‘My wish simply is to live my life as fully as I can.  In both our work and our leisure, I think, we should be so employed.  And in our time this means that we must save ourselves from the products that we are asked to buy in order, ultimately, to replace ourselves.’

Purchase from The Book Depository