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Last year was a good reading year, compared to previous years - 40 books read (up on the last couple of years, though still down on pre-parenthood days!), of which quite a few were particularly enjoyable. Looking back at my 2018 list just now, I was struck by just how many books stand out. Particular favourites, in no particular order, were:
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Petit Pays by Gael Faye
Transcription by Kate Atkinson
I also enjoyed at least 2 books by each of the following new-to-me authors, and am looking forward to reading more:
Karl Ove Knausgard
I'm not a planner when it comes to reading; I'll just go with the flow and see where my 2019 reading takes me. I'll be reading from my TBR shelves and from a couple of libraries, and possibly making more use of my Kindle.
1. Exposure by Helen Dunmore (UK)
2. Tropique de la violence by Natacha Appanah (Mauritius, in French)
3. The Librarian by Sally Vickers (UK)
4. The Sixteen Trees of the Somme by Lars Mytting (Norway, translation)
5. I'll be Right There by Kyung-sook Shin (South Korea, translation)
6. No soy un monstruo by Carme Chaparro (Spain, in Spanish)
7. Love of Fat Men by Helen Dunmore (UK)
8. Why Did You Lie? by Yrsa Sigurdadottir (Iceland, translation)
9. A Rule against Murder by Louise Penny (Canada)
10. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle (USA)
11. LaRose by Louise Erdrich (USA)
12. The Winter Ghosts by Kate Mosse (UK)
13. Astonishing Splashes of Colour by Clare Morrall (UK)
14. The Distant Echo by Val McDermid (UK)
15. The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker (UK)
16. Truly, Madly, Guilty by Liane Moriarty (Australia)
17. Tangerine by Christine Mangan (USA)
18. The Man Who Disappeared by Clare Morrall (UK)
19. Listy miłości by MAria Nurowska (Poland, in Polish)
20. A Man Called Ove by Frederick Backman (Sweden, translation)
21. Travels with my Donkey: One Man and his Ass on a Pilgrimage to Santiago by Tim Moore (UK, non-fiction)
22. The American Lover by Rose Tremain (UK, short stories)
23. Big Sky by Kate Atkinson (UK)
24. Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward (USA)
25. The Lost Man by Jane Harper (Australia)
26. Trick of the Dark by Val McDermid (UK)
27. Leila by Prayaag Akbar (India)
28. Educated by Tara Westover (USA, non-fiction)
29. The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler (USA)
30. Les Amandes amères by Laurence Cosset (France, in French)
31. Finding Katerina M by Elisabeth Elo (USA)
32. La vraie vie by Adeline Dieudonné (in French, Belgium)
33. The Red Clocks by Leni Zumas (USA)
34. The Woman in the Photograph by Stephanie Butland (UK)
35. Sex Object: A Memoir by Jessica Valenti (USA, non-fiction)
36. La tresse by Laeititia Colombani (in French, France)
37. The Testaments by Margaret Atwood (Canada)
38. Fifty Shades of Feminism edited by Lisa Appignanesi et al. (Non-fiction)
39. Bitter Orange by Claire Fuller (UK)
40. Distancia de rescate by Samanta Schweblin (Argentina, in Spanish)
41. The Amateur Marriage by Anne Tyler (USA)
42. Siete casas vacias by Samanta Schweblin (Argentina, in Spanish, short stories)
43. The Core of the Sun by Johanna Sinisalo (Finland, translation)
44. Out of Bounds by Val McDermid (UK)
45. My Struggle: Book 3: Boyhood Island by Karl Ove Knausgård (Norway, translation)
46. The Brutal Telling by Louise Penny (Canada)
I don't know why Helen Dunmore isn't a bigger name; I have thoroughly rated everything of hers that I've read. The last thing of hers I read was The Greatcoat, which I read right at the end of 2017, just in time for it to make it on to my 'best of 2017' list. Exposure is set in 1960 in England, so a little later than The Greatcoat, but the same general time and place, a time and place that Dunmore portrays brilliantly. What is added to the mix in Exposure, of course, is cold war paranoia, so when Simon Callington, a quite unremarkable low-ranking, unambitious civil servant who is a devoted husband and father (albeit one with a skeleton in his closet), is wrongly arrested as a spy, the outlook for him is bleak, and he and his family are plunged into a nightmare. To make matters worse, his wife, Lily, is German by birth; she fled Germany with her mother before the war, as a young child, and until now has always felt more British than German, but suddenly she feels foreign, someone people are suspicious of, someone who doesn't quite fit in as she struggles to hold her family together.
On the surface this is a quiet book, written in Dunmore's beautiful restrained style, but underneath there is so much going on. It got right under my skin.
>8 lisapeet: I’m not surprised! I keep thinking about it and marvelling at how cleverly Dunmore put it all together whilst appearing to do very little. And then there’s the way she writes, which really works for me, and the extremely lifelike characters...
(Available in English translation as Tropic of Violence)
Reading this book made me very happy. Ten years ago on Christmas Eve I was stuck at Austerlitz station in Paris, waiting for my train to Limoges to spend Christmas with my dad. All the trains were severely delayed. The station was heaving with people, and it was hard to find a place to stand, let alone sit. Very fed up, I elbowed my way into the small newsagent's shop and listlessly cast my eye over the limited range of books on offer on the rack, not expecting anything to interest me; in any case, in the mood I was in, it was going to be almost impossible for anything to pique my interest. But one little book did, a little book I'd never heard of, by a French/Mauritian author I'd never heard of - Le Dernier frère (The Last Brother) by Natacha Appanah. I started it immediately - I remember standing in the crush reading the first pages, and the station, the crowds, the delay, the cold all fell away as I was transported into another world. I know this is an overused phrase, but I couldn't put it down. Since then, I've read several of Appanah's other books (Les Noces d'Anna, Les Rochers de Poudre d'or, Blue Bay Palace), hoping to find the same magic, but I've been disappointed (they're nice books, but not up there with The Last Brother). Tropique de la violence, though, is Natacha Appanah back on Le Dernier frère form, and that makes me very happy indeed.
Tropique de la violence is set on Mayotte, a little-known island in the Indian Ocean which is a French overseas 'départment', where Appanah lived for a couple of years; she says that her interest in the street children of Mayotte inspired this book. Fifteen-year old Moise finds himself alone after the death of his adopted mother, Marie, and gets caught up in a gang that rules one particular neighbourhood. Angry with Marie for abandoning him by dying, angry with her for 'stealing' his identity and trying to force him into a life that wasn't his (his birth mother was an illegal immigrant from the Comoros Islands, who abandoned him at the hospital where Marie worked as a nurse, immediately after she had arrived by boat on one of Mayotte's beachers), heartbroken and lost, Moise is easy prey for the unscrupulous young gang leader, who decides that Moise will become one of his acolytes. From his ordered life with Marie, Moise is plunged into a dark world of drugs and lawlessness from which there is no easy escape (the gang leader does not take kindly to 'his' people leaving, as Moise will discover). The manner in which the story unfolds reminded me of Gael Faye's Petit Pays; a beautiful environment and a breathtakingly beautiful story, which I willed to end well, whilst knowing it wouldn't (or maybe it did, because the ending, whilst sad, is also uplifting). The story is narrated from various different viewpoints - Marie, from beyond the grave, Moise, the gang leader, the French NGO volunteer who tries to help the street children and give them an alternative to the gangs, a local policeman, and their narratives weave together to create a spellbinding whole.
Another reason reading this made me happy was the way I read it - on New Year's Day morning, my little daughter (5 next month) came into my bed for a cuddle, and then fell asleep again in my arms. Happily, I was sitting up against comfy pillows, the bedside light was on, and this book was to hand on the bedside table, as I'd put it there the previous day as one I wanted to read soon. She slept for such a long time that I read over half the book, and it was a magical experience.
>13 rachbxl: I've read The Last Brother, but will look for others by her, thanks to the recommendations of you and Lois.
The display shelves (new acquisitions, plus random others) at the two libraries I use through work are a good source of lucky discoveries, introducing me to great books I wouldn’t otherwise have read, or wouldn’t have read right now. This book-choosing method can’t work every time, though, and this is one of the times it failed.
I thought this had all the elements for a feel-good read, and I think that’s what it was supposed to be, but it didn’t work for me. A young librarian arriving in a small town in England in the 1960s to take charge of the children’s library encounters resistance, not least from her boss, to her plans to make the library somewhere children want to come. She soldiers on, navigating the hidden currents of small-town relationships as best she can, making friends and enemies, and reading lots of books and recommending still more along the way. Oh, and she falls in love with the handsome new doctor, who is unfortunately married. It was never going to be great literature, but it could have been a nice little story. Instead, it plodded along with too much telling and now enough showing. The only time it did take off a little was in what is called part 2 but which is actually more of an epilogue, as it’s just the last 30 pages or so. This part is set now, and it was much more natural than the rest of the book, set in the 1960s.
Translated from the Norwegian by Paul Russell Garrett
And this is one where the library display shelves threw up a gem. I don’t think I’d even heard of this wonderful book, or the author (this is his first work of fiction, but he’s the author of an unlikely bestseller, the non-fiction Norwegian Wood: Chopping, Stacking and Drying Wood the Scandinavian Way). This book, too, is all about wood (the trees of the title are walnut trees, and walnut, it turns out, is highly prized by cabinet makers), but it’s also a gripping mystery, and a great family saga, covering the period from World War I until the early 20th century, and taking us from rural Norway to Shetland to the Somme. Put like that, it sounds rather odd, but it works spectacularly well. It’s incredibly well put together; without fail, whenever I thought I had spotted a flaw in the plot, it was as if Mytting could read my mind, as within a few pages he would seamlessly slip in a small detail which closed the loophole.
The narrator’s world in rural Norway reminded me of the rural Norway portrayed by Gaute Heivoll. In the Shetland parts, the landscape and the weather almost become characters in their own right. And as for the real characters, they walk off the page, even the ones we never meet but only know through the narrator, like the parents he lost as a boy of 3. The translation reads so easily that most of the time I forgot it was a translation at all.
I wanted to know how it ended, because I wanted to know how the mystery was resolved, but I didn’t want the book to end. A fabulous book.
>20 rachbxl: The Sixteen Trees of the Somme sounds very interesting. Book bullet!
>22 dchaikin: Thanks! I agree, one out of two isn't that bad, after all. And to be fair, I'm currently enjoying 2 more from the same library shelves.
>23 AlisonY: I thought of you, because I read The Sixteen Trees of the Somme just after we told each other on your thread how much we both enjoy a good family saga.
>24 labfs39: These aren't the library sale shelves, but the ones where they display new acquisitions, amongst others (I'm never sure how they decide what to put there, which adds to the element of surprise). One of the libraries does have a 'help-yourself-for-free' shelf, but the offerings don't tend to be that interesting, sadly. They don't do sale shelves; I think they just keep things for ever (they aren't standard libraries, as not open to the public for one thing, and one of the two is volunteer-run). But yes, the joy of poking around in a second-hand bookshop or charity shop, not knowing whether this particular visit you'll strike gold...
translated from the Korean by Sora Kim-Russell
Another gem from the library display. I only picked it up because it was South Korean (back in the day when I had more reading time, and more LT time, I was a keen member of the Reading Globally group, very enthusiastic about my reading around the world project; the project is on ice, but old habits die hard, and I have my round-the-world reading to thank for the fact that I am often drawn to books in translation, and to books from 'exotic' (to me) places.
I nearly gave up on this one, because it didn't seem to be going anywhere, but then I realised that to expect it to go anywhere fast was to misunderstand it. In fact it does go, but it does so so slowly and gently that the reader doesn't notice it happening. The novel opens with the narrator, a very articulate, well-read but lonely woman in her late 20s, getting a phone call from her ex-boyfriend from their student days, after almost a decade of silence, to tell her that their beloved professor is dying. She knows she should rush to visit the professor, but something holds her back, and instead she reflects upon her life. The pages of the journals of her ex-boyfriend are interspersed with her narration. Kyung-sook Shin somehow builds up images and characters in very fine layers, which she adds to again and again; it's imperceptible, and very effective. There is some narrative drive, but this novel is more about the characters and what makes them tick, and by extension about human beings and what makes us tick...and in particular, about what prevents two people getting close to each other. There's much here that is bleak and hopeless, but there's also a lot of gentle beauty.
I am happy to have discovered this writer, and I'll be on the lookout for Please Look After Mom, her 2012 Man Asian Literary Prize winner.
Chaparro is a well-known TV journalist in Spain, and this is her first novel. She draws on what she knows, as one of the main characters, Ines, is a TV journalist; I really enjoyed the parts about how such journalists cover sensational stories (of which there are several here), and these scenes rang true. I didn't like the rest of it as much, though. The novel opens with the kidnapping of a child, which gets the police procedual treatment about half the time, because the other main character, Ana, is a chief inspector. It could have been interesting to see the police handling of the case clashing with the journalistic approach, but for me it didn't quite work; it was as if the novel couldn't decide whether it's a police procedural or a journalist's diary. I was also irritated by the breathless wordiness, which seemed to get worse as I got further into the book (or maybe it was just that my tolerance decreased). Lots of short sentences. Very short sentences. Because short sentences are good. Ana had always thought that short sentences were good. Very good. And now Ines was convinved too. Convinced that short sentences were good. Ana and Ines, convinced.
However, it seems I'm in the minority, as this novel won Spain's Premio Primavera in 2016.
>34 RidgewayGirl: Thanks for the compliment! It's mutual, of course… I think you would like Dunmore, and I can't believe you've been in Club Read all this time and not been hit by an Appanah bullet before.
Love of Fat Men by Helen Dunmore
This is a fabulous collection of short stories, up there with Alice Munro and the like, in my opinion. I've become aware over the years of how really good short story writers can do things others can't, so where less exceptional (but still good) writers will write stories with a clear beginning, middle and end, these outstanding writers aren't limited to that. Most of these stories are like opening a window on the characters for a period of time, be it hours, days or weeks; during that time we see them startlingly clearly, but then the window closes, and we are left wondering, which isn't the same thing as being left unsatisfied. Many of the stories here are set in Finland, and they all feature the same character, a student called Ulli, and various friends and boyfriends of hers; they also feature the biting chill of the Finnish winter in a big way. I looked into the Finnish connection because I was curious about it, and it turns out that Dunmore spent 2 years in Finland in her early 20s. I spent a few years in Spain at the same age, and I always had vague ideas that such a formative experience must have provided me with much to write about, if only I could write. Well, these stories show what happens when you have an experience like that and you CAN write, and they have just hardened my resolve to read as much Dunmore as I can find.
That's an aspect I really like about short stories - when their written that way. If several like that are combined in sequence, it can be a great kaleidoscope of stuff the think about.
I did not know this author, but she seems really interesting. And I like the way you mix your feedback on the book and your personal reading experience. Great review!
Which book would you recommand to start with to discover Natacha Appanah, Le Dernier frère or Tropique de la violence?
Not sure the book you reviewed appeal to me, but Korean literature seems to be full of interesting things to be discovered).
>39 avaland: Thanks, Lois. The two libraries I use have several more of her works between them, so I am not about to run out. I'm trying to pace myself rather than reading them all at once, though.
>40 raton-liseur: I agree about Korean literature. I haven't read much, but what I have read has been a real discovery (as opposed to just nice to read, if you see what I mean). I'm off to find your thread now!
Translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb
I found myself in a reading slump a few weeks back; I caught the flu, not badly (at least, not compared to my poor husband), but badly enough not to be able to concentrate on anything, and even after I was better it left me tired for ages. I tried various books that I really want to read, and put them all to one side, but when I saw this in the library I thought it might hit the spot, and it did. It's a thriller that is so smoothly, so cleverly put together that I didn't see the dénouement coming at all. The various threads appear at first to have nothing to do with each other. There's the photographer who has been winched down from a helicopter on to a windswept rock in the middle of the sea, having talked a man he met in a bar into letting him accompany him on his trip to service the lighthouse - what photographer would pass up on that kind of opportunity? Then there's the young female police officer, relegated to clerical work in the basement archives and snubbed by all her colleagues after making a complaint about one of them; her husband is on life support after a suicide attempt and she spends her nights on a chair at his bedside. And the married couple with their teenage son, just back from a holiday in the USA, only to find that the Americans they did a house-swap with appear to have done some rather odd things during their stay in Iceland. What could these people possibly have in common? Slowly, patiently, Sigurdardottir weaves the threads together. She does so very cleverly, but not in a clever-clever way, rather with immense skill. As well as being a great storyteller, she is also excellent at drawing her characters, who are vivid and real, if not always likeable (real people, in other words). And to top it all off, what an atmospheric portrayal of Iceland, its landscape, its weather.
I bought Le Dernier frère by Appanah (yes, in French, of course) following your advice. And I let myself being tempted by Prends soin de maman by Shin Kyung-sook. I discovered this author here, and the subject is more in line with my book tastes than the one that you read, I'll be right there. Intrigued by South Korean litterature at the moment, that's my excuse to buy this...
A Rule against Murder by Louise Penny
I read the first three of Louise Penny's Inspector Gamache series several years ago, and thoroughly enjoyed them. Desperate to find something I could read in my post-flu fatigue, I bought this on my Kindle, but in the end I read Why Did You Lie? first. When I did get on to this, I just couldn't understand why it had taken me so long to pick up this fourth Inspector Gamache book. Penny creates a world which could so easily be trite and twee, but it isn't, or not in my eyes, at least; it's somehow the best of the real world, murders notwithstanding. It's what the real world might be like if we all slowed down a bit. But it's not just the environment that Penny creates, it's her characters too; even the bad ones are likeable, because they come across as real people (I am completely smitten with Armand Gamache, and just a little envious of his lovely wife, Reine-Marie).
Unlike the first 3 in the series (if I remember correctly), A Rule against Murder isn't set in the charming little Quebec village of Three Pines, but in a luxurious, secluded hotel (think old-fashioned luxury rather than cool boutique hotel) where the Gamaches go every year to celebrate their wedding anniversary. This year, the other guests consist entirely of the members of one rich family, who are a fascinating lot; the Gamaches spend much time observing them, and decoding their barbed comments to and about each other. After a couple of days, the missing brother, Spot, and his 'dreadful' wife Clare arrive, and it's a surprise to the Gamaches to find that they actually know Spot and Clare rather well. And there's someone else around the property that they recognise... All is in place for the perfect country house murder mystery, and that's what we get. Armand Gamache switches from guest to Chief Inspector, as his wife takes refuge in the B&B in Three Pines, just over the mountains.
The events take place during a heatwave, but I read this during our skiing holiday last week, tucked up in the chalet while it snowed outside, and despite the difference in weather conditions, it somehow fitted perfectly.
I have already bought the next in the series, and I won't be waiting long to enjoy it.
It makes me wonder why we love foreign literatures and we do not shy from prized books when we do in our own country. And I wonder as well if it's the same : the real gems are not prized books and we miss all the best of foreign literature altogether.
Pondering over the subject at the moment, as I am reading too many US books, and as my last book purchase included two Korean authors (along with a Dutch and a Mauritian one. No French because nothing appeals to me at the moment, and consciously no US as they are already too well represented in my current reads.).
>51 auntmarge64: I hope you manage to find one.
>52 raton-liseur: I agree that the real gems are not necessarily the books that win the prizes, and that we miss a lot of them (even in our own language, I would say, though LT helps me with that) because they pass under the radar. I tend to avoid prize-winners even in translation/in the other languages I read, which sometimes strikes me as a bit silly, as I think I miss out on some good ones there, too (just because a book has won a major prize doesn't mean I won't enjoy it), though my recent experience with the winner of a major Spanish prize made me wish I'd stuck to my guns! In the case of Please Look after Mother, when I took I'll Be Right There back to the library, the librarian recommended Please Look after Mother, which she had read recently herself...and it was only when I took it off the shelf I saw that it had won the Man Asian, and that it had sold over a million copies worldwide. I was put off by both those things, but I told myself not to be silly...but as I still haven't finished the book, I don't know if it was worth it or not.
I thought this was a re-read, but it really didn't ring any bells, so maybe I didn't read it as a teenager after all. I'm glad I've made up for it now; what a lovely little book this is. Three children, accompanied by three witches (for want of a better word), travel through time and space in search of the father of two of the children, a brilliant scientist who disappeared a couple of years previously. Local gossips say he has run off with another woman, but Meg and Charles Wallace know he wouldn't have left them by choice.
I haven't made it sound like much, but I loved it. It's both gentle and immensely thought-provoking. I really wish I'd read it as a teen, as it's the kind of book that opens mental doors and makes the imagination soar.
Did you read Mingarelli's A Meal in Winter? It's bleak but I thought it a powerful story. I see he has a new book up for the Man Booker International Prize, Four Soldiers which I dropped into my BD basket. Have you read it?
>55 RidgewayGirl: I avoid French prices but am more flexible regarding foreign litterature and prizes. And I have the feeling that most foreign litterature that comes to us has indeed won a price (or the author has, for one book or another). It is juste a feeling, but I'm glad you can find books that have been published in France with no prize attached to it. It means that publishers are still on the look for nice books rather than sticking to easily marketable products.
- Prizes - I find I mostly ignore prizes for books in English, but for other literatures where I don’t know my way around as well, they can sometimes be a useful way in. At least you can say you’ve dipped into the two or three most talked-about writers before you start digging in deeper to find the ones who appeal to you personally.
- Iceland - I got rapped on the fingers a while back for not knowing how Icelandic names work - apparently the patronymic isn’t a substitute for a surname, it’s an addition to the given name, so for someone like Yrsa Sigurðardóttir who doesn’t use a surname, you shelve her under “Y” in alphabetical order and can refer to her as “Yrsa” or “Yrsa Sigurðardóttir” but never “Sigurðardóttir” on its own. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Icelandic_name
(I read and quite enjoyed The legacy a while ago, but haven’t got round to looking for any more yet - I should.)
I haven’t read A Meal in Winter, but it’s on my wishlist, and even before you mentioned it something reminded me recently that I want to read it soon. Haven’t read Four Soldiers either.
>59 thorold: I agree about the need to ration Louise Penny, and in fact it was because of that that I stopped reading them when I did. It would be easy to race through them, but I do fear they would lose their charm, and that would be a shame. I only intended a break of a few months, though, and it turned into several years. I’m currently reading the next one, but I’m taking it slowly, and I’ve told myself that after that I’ll have a little break.
Very interesting about Icelandic names; I had no idea (as you spotted). You can see from my response to avaland, higher up this post, that I have taken it on board (though it feels odd to refer to her just as ‘Yrsa’!)
>63 avaland: I look forward to seeing what you make of Tropic of Violence. Also looking forward to your thoughts on the Four Soldiers. I picked up A Meal in Winter in a second-hand bookshop the other day; I might not have noticed it had you not put it back near the top of my mental wishlist.
LaRose by Louise Erdrich
I'd been keeping half an eye out for novels by Erdrich ever since I enjoyed a couple of her short stories several years ago, and I found this in the library recently (I say 'found' because it was in the treasure-trove of a library where books are shelved by order of acquisition, not alphabetically. There is a catalogue, but I don't use it because I like the element of surprise).
Out hunting one day, Landreaux, a Native American, shoots and kills his neighbour's young son. After much anguish, he and his wife (but mainly him) decide to take inspiration from their Native American traditions and give their own son, LaRose, close in age to the dead boy, to their neighbours, to right the wrong. I found the gentle examination of how various members of the two families react to this fascinating and moving: the dead boy's mother (who is also LaRose's aunt, though she is estranged from her sister, his mother), consumed with grief, who initially cannot fathom how anyone could think that this boy could replace hers...and yet, with time, she lets him in, in her own grief-stricken way (why won't LaRose eat all the cakes she makes for him?); the dead boy's older sister, Maggie, already troubled, and a trouble-maker at school, whose parents leave her to cope alone with the loss of her brother and the arrival of this new one; the dead boy's father, Peter, a kind, gentle man who feels the suffering of all around him and cannot put it right; Landreaux, who needs to believe that he has done the right thing in giving LaRose away; his wife, LaRose's mother, who initially accepts as inevitable that they must give LaRose away, and her struggles to deal with it; LaRose's fabulous older sisters, Snow and Josette, who claim poor, lost Maggie as their new sister and help her discover her talent for sports, giving her life a meaning it hadn't had before. There is also a wonderful supporting cast of relatives, friends, the odd enemy, neighbours, who all together create a close-knit community which is so real I am sure it must exist somewhere. The story of LaRose, the boy, is intertwined with the stories of various ancestors, also called LaRose (before him, all female), giving the weight of history and tradition to what happens to the current LaRose.
An atmospheric ghost story set in the foothills of the Pyrenees. Still mourning the loss of his beloved brother in World War I, in 1928 Freddie undertakes what is supposed to be a restorative journey through the south of France. It's the middle of winter, and his car spins off the road up in the mountains. He manages to walk to a village down in the valley, and the owner of the boarding house tells him he would be welcome to attend the annual village dinner, taking place that night. At the dinner, a meticulous recreation of a medieval banquet, with everyone but him dressed in medieval costume, Freddie meets a beautiful woman, Fabrissa, who captivates him. They spend the night talking, and understand each other perfectly, and when trouble breaks out at the banquet they escape to the hills through a secret passage. They agree to see each other the following day, but Freddie can find no trace of her, nor anyone who knows her. What's more, the owner of the boarding house regrets that Freddie didn't accept her invitation to the dinner… But Freddie is determined to find Fabrissa, and his determination leads him to uncover a secret that has been undisturbed for centuries.
A quick read, well-told and a pleasure to read. Of course, a large degree of suspension of disbelief was needed, but I was willing. I let myself be carried along, and I enjoyed the ride.
Appropriately enough, it was the astonishing splashes of colour on the spine (the cover is yellow) that made me pull this one off the library shelves. I had never heard of this novel, nor of Clare Morrall, although it was shortlisted for the Booker in 2003. This was Morrall's debut, and she has since written 7 more novels.
Kitty grew up in Birmingham, in a large family, the youngest by far. Her mother died when she was very young, and her (not very successful) artist father is big, expansive character who loves her but doesn't understand her. Her several older brothers have always been an important presence in her life, but she wishes she had known her sister, Dinah, who ran away (because she didn't get on with their mother, the family story goes) when Kitty was tiny and hasn't been heard from since. This is a family where the members, even as adults, all spend a lot of time with each other, but where nobody really talks, at least, not about the important stuff.
When we meet Kitty she is disturbed by a recent loss, something so big that she cannot come to terms with it. She strikes a poignant figure, surrounded by people (not just her family, who she tries, but fails, to keep at arm's length, but also her husband, James; they met because they lived in adjacent flats, and as they both like their own space they still live like that) but lonely. They all want to help, and they all mean well, but she is on her own. As her mind unravels, so does the fabric of her life as she knew it, as all the lies are revealed. That's the big story, and it's a good one, but alongside that there are all the little stories, small observations of human behaviour, expressed in a quiet, understated way. I often found myself going back to something I had read a few seconds earlier, as the deliciousness sank in.
I've made it sound quite bleak, but, like LaRose, it's a difficult story which is ultimately uplifting, not in a Hollywood happy-ending kind of way, but in a 'we are human and we find a way' kind of way. I'd like to read more by Morrall.
The first Karen Pirie novel; I had read at least one later one, but it didn't matter.
What to say? McDermid never disappoints. The tight plot, the convincing characters, the setting… I picked this one up whilst visiting my mum last week, and read it quickly as I didn't want to bring it back with me; I read the last chapter in the car to the airport!
>65 rachbxl: Ironically, I have read Erdrich's first, Love Medicine (when it came out) and her dystopia, Future Home of the Living God which I liked well enough but was dissatisfied with the ending. Perhaps I need to read one from in between the two.
>67 rachbxl: Intriguing review.
>66 rachbxl: I've read Sepulchre and Labyrinth by Kate Mosse, and they are very similar in plot to Winter Ghosts. Have you read any of her other books?
>70 avaland: I would recommend The Round House, Lois. I thought it so much better than Love Medicine and its ilk. LaRose sounds good too.
I have read almost everything Pat Barker has published, much of it when I was in my 20s, and I have always admired her greatly as a writer, without ever really feeling an emotional connection, without ever really being bowled over...until now. I loved, loved, loved The Silence of the Girls, her take on The Iliad, which she turns on its head by making it about the women, not the men, except that it's still all about the men because the women have no voice. One of those wonderful books that I wanted to rush straight through, whilst simultaneously never wanting it to end.
Circe has been on my wishlist since it came out, as I liked Miller’s The Song of Achilles so much.
I loved Song of Achilles too and have Circe sitting on my shelf. I've wanted to reread the relevant section of the Odyssey first and (a flimsy excuse) can't find my copy. I should go online and read it as soon as I've finished Jane Eyre.
That sounds like me, unable to read Go Set a Watchman, which a friend gave me as soon as it came out, before I re-read To Kill a Mockingbird. I could easily get it from the library, but I’m sure I’ve got a copy somewhere...
(Similar problem with Erdrich. I’ve thought about reading Round House for years, before LT, I think...)
Enjoyed catching up here.
Thank you for - I was going to say for putting my thoughts into words, but that's not quite right - as I hadn't consciously thought this - but it sums up exactly how I felt about The Silence of the Girls compared to previous Barkers I've read.
The second was The Book of Salt, by Vietnamese-American writer Monique Truong, which I liked the idea of, but which just wasn't working for me after several chapters.
Truly, Madly, Guilty by Liane Moriarty
I picked this up recently in a second-hand bookshop, having enjoyed Big Little Lies, and I put it aside for an occasion just like this, when I wanted something light but well-written. Cellist Clementine and her non-musician Sam are invited, with their two small daughters, to their friends' house for afternoon tea. Erika is Clementine's 'best friend' (though we discover that their friendship is far from straightforward), and she is married to Oliver. Erika and Oliver are uptight and childless, with not a thing out of place in their pristine home; they start out as the misfits, the oddballs, but as we learn their respective backgrounds and see more of them, they become increasingly sympathetic (they don't change, but they start to make sense). When Clementine and her family turn up at Erika and Oliver's house, they learn that after a quick afternoon tea, they are all invited next door for a barbeque at the house of the larger-than-life neighbour Vid, and his wife, Tiffany; Erika felt compelled to accept the invitation even though social events like that really aren't her thing, and even though she and Oliver have a very specific reason for inviting Clementine and her family round and seeing them in private. Anyway, off to the barbeque they go, and in the next couple of hours something happens that will knock them all off course. Liane Moriarty skilfully keeps exactly what happens a secret until halfway through the novel, whilst building up to it. I couldn't stop reading to find out what it was, and once I knew, I couldn't stop reading to find out what happened to them all. Moriarty tells a great story, but for me what she excels at is portraying realistic characters, who are likeable because they are so human, rather than because they are just nice.
But I can see that it's a book you have to approach at the right moment in your life: if you're not in the mood for "wordy" at present, it's obviously not going to work for you. And he hasn't got any less wordy since then - Berta Isla and Así empieza lo malo are every bit as circuitous in getting to the point as Los enamoramientos.
>86 avaland: Absolutely. I'm always pleased to find someone who writes light stuff well.
I loved the setting of this novel, 1950s Tangier, just as Morocco gains its independence. Whilst this isn't the subject of the novel, the uncertainty, the questions, the shifts in power from one day to the next between locals and foreigners, different perceptions of who belongs and who doesn't...all of this reflects the much more personal story at the heart of the novel, a story involving Alice, a young British woman, recently married (but clearly not very happily so), who has moved to Tangier to be with her husband, John. John loves the city passionately, but Alice feels out of place and is reluctant to leave their small flat. The arrival of her old friend Lucy, her room-mate from their years at an exclusive US college, sounds like a good thing...but why is Lucy there, exactly? What does she want with Alice? And who is Lucy really? Mangan does a good job of building up the suspense, and not letting it go until it is almost unbearable. I did enjoy reading this, but I had to suspend disbelief in order to accept how Lucy was always a step ahead, and to accept that Alice was really so helpless. Still, an entertaining read with a great sense of place.
In April I read Morrall's first novel, Astonishing Splashes of Colour; it made the Booker shortlist in 2003, but I'd never heard of Morrall, and I only picked it up because its colourful spine stood out on the library shelves. I really enjoyed it, and said I wanted to read more of her work. All too often, when I say that kind of thing I leave it so long that I end up forgetting, and I didn't want to do that here. Fortunately, the library has The Man Who Disappeared as well, and I'm glad they did, because I liked it even more than Astonishing Splashes.
Kate's comfortable middle-class life with Felix and their 3 children falls apart when Felix disappears, and falls apart still further when it becomes clear that he has disappeared because the police are after him as part of a huge money-laundering investigation. Impossible! The Felix Kate knows, the one she has spent over 25 years with, wouldn't do anything like that. The Felix Kate knows was an upstanding citizen, a successful accountant, pillar of the community, excellent husband and father. But really, how well do we know anyone else? If Astonishing Splashes featured a quite eccentric, atypical family who were so lifelike they walked off the page, here, the characters are utterly ordinary, any old family, but they are every bit as lifelike, the children as well as Kate and Felix, and the minor characters too. I was really impressed by Clare Morrall's portrayal of Birmingham in her first novel; the setting almost becomes a character in its own right, and here she does the same with Exeter and the surrounding area (Morrall was born in Exeter and has lived mainly in Birmingham).
Here’s the one I can remember:
Listy miłości by Maria Nurowska
(I don’t think any of her (many) works have been translated into English, but the title means ‘Love Letters’).
So that I can tell my boss with a clear conscience that I have been working on my Polish again, I read a book in Polish (that’s not quite what he means, but not to worry). I chose this one because having read one-and-a-half of Nurowska’s other books, I know she tells a good story. This time, the story begins in the Warsaw ghetto, with a 19-year old girl who could have stayed outside with her Aryan mother, but who decided to accompany her beloved Jewish father instead (this was the first of several instances in the book where I would have liked to know more about her motivation). Realising that she and her father are starving to death, along with all around them, she turns to prostitution to support them. She breaks her father’s heart (and he dies anyway). She quickly becomes the favourite whore of a German officer; she turns down his offer of marriage, but accepts his offer of false papers, and escapes from the ghetto, with no intention of going to the flat he has rented for her. Instead, she flees, and, fearing that she is being followed, throws herself upon the mercy of an older woman who opens a door she knocks on. The old woman lives with her young grandson, whose mother is in Auschwitz (I wanted to know why), and whose father is off fighting with the partisans. When the latter reappears, the two of them fall in love, and the novel takes the form of a series of letters, spanning several decades, from her to him, explaining who she really is.
What I liked, apart from the predictably good yarn, was the refresher course in Polish history since WW2; it’s all there. What frustrated me, as I said, was that all too often there was no reason given for Krystyna to behave in a given way (why did she never seek out her mother, for example? Her repeated statements that she just didn’t want to didn’t really convince me). Maybe someone who had lived through those times themselves would understand her motivation better, but at times she did seem to me to ping around to suit the story. I also found that the structure (series of love letters) didn’t quite work. She had to give lots of information to allow the reader to understand, but it was often information that her lover/husband would have had already...why the need to spell out to him his own family history, for example, or details of his own career?
Anyway, it was good enough to make me think that I should, after all these years, finish the book I said i’d read half of.
A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
Translated from the Swedish by Henning Koch
Ove is a cantankerous old widower who lives life by the rules and expects others to do likewise. Things start to change when an Iranian woman, pregnant with her 3rd child, moves in next door with her husband and their two daughters. That’s about it as far as the plot goes, but this is a lovely portrait of a grumpy old man, a marriage, and various more or less unlikely friendships. Ove is one of the best characters I’ve encountered in a long time (he reminded me of my dad, so I passed my copy on to my stepmother; the next day a friend told me she had passed hers on to HER stepmother for the same reason!)
Of course, when reading a translation it’s always difficult to know whether any stilted bits come from the original or the translation, but there were a couple of things that made me raise my eyebrows (I can’t quote as, as I said, I no longer have the book, but for example something about someone’s temper flaring up like the saloon doors in a western movie...???) I’ve just looked the translator up, and he turns out to be Swedish rather than a native English speaker, which probably explains it.
Please Look After Mom goes down as one of the books I've despised the most. I simply hated everything about it, but mostly I hated how manipulative it was. And I read it twice, because I was writing a review for Belletrista and had to come up with something positive to say, and really couldn't. I will never get those hours back. At the time there was an excellent negative review from the NYTs (I think)
The Winter Ghosts sounds like fun!
97> I'm so glad you enjoyed it then! I always worry that my recommendations will fall flat for a reader; it's nice to hear this one didn't. I hope you like My Grandmother, it's my second favorite.
I have been intrigued by the pilgrims’ route to Santiago ever since I spent several years living in Burgos in my early 20s. I’d never heard of it before, and I was fascinated by the locals’ reverent reaction to the (at the time small trickle of) pilgrims. I learnt from this book that Burgos is now the place on the route with most pilgrim hostel beds. I learnt a lot of other little facts too, imparted by Tim Moore in a casual, off-hand way.
I spent much of the book wondering WHY Moore had taken the donkey on this adventure in the first place (ok, maybe ‘One Man on a Pilgrimage to Santiago’ isn’t such a catchy title). He knew nothing about donkeys beforehand, and went on a crash course on donkeys and donkey care (at which they basically told him not to do it), before collecting the poor donkey he had located in the Pyrenees and setting off. This was always going to be a challenging walk, and the donkey just made it harder. Thank you, Tim Moore, for convincing me never to take a donkey along on an adventure like this. Or on any adventure.
Moore has a good eye for quirky detail, and he tells his story in an easy, spontaneous way. At the start of the book I was laughing out loud, but I did wonder even then how long the humour would have me laughing, and sure enough, it started to wear thin after a while, so for me the book was about a third too long. However, I really enjoyed the first two thirds. It’s not all funny; there’s a lot of history, information about the local area, observations about his fellow travellers, and personal development too, as on any good pilgrimage.
I thought this was a novel when I picked it up, but it’s actually short stories, and excellent ones at that, all set in different environments (London, Russia, Finland, etc), which all ring true. They are what I would call quiet stories, which left me thinking about each one after I had fninshed it.
Big Sky by Kate Atkinson
The latest Jackson Brodie novel. I don’t like the Jackson Brodie books as much as I like Kate Atkinson’s other work, but that still leaves scope for me to rate them quite highly. This time, the ever-likeable Jackson gets involved, in spite of himself, in an investigation into human trafficking and child abuse in a seaside town in NE England. A particularly gruesome topic, but a particularly readable book, full of Atkinson’s trademark literary and cultural references (I don’t know how she does that without seeming to show off). As ever, the characters are rounded and credible, the story is gripping, and the sense of place is really strong.
I have been a fan of Jesmyn Ward’s work ever since I reviewed her first novel, Where the Line Bleeds for the second issue of Belletrista. I was similarly impressed by her second novel, Salvage the Bones, and I’d been looking forward to reading Sing, Unburied, Sing ever since it came out in 2017. Like the two earlier novels, it didn’t grab me immediately, but it grew on me, crept up on me, until it wouldn’t let me go.
All three novels are set in the same nondescript small town on the Gulf of Mississippi, close to where Jesmyn Ward grew up (Sing, Unburied, Sing includes a cameo appearance by two characters from Salvage the Bones). The story centres on Jojo, a 12-year old African American boy, and his family - his mother, more interested in drugs than in her children; his white father, just released from jail; his grandmother, formerly a traditional healer, now dying of cancer; his grandfather, who also did time in the jail his son-in-law was just released from (in the grandfather’s case, it was largely because of the colour of his skin), and who holds the family together. As in her previous novels, Jesmyn Ward shines a harsh light on the problems faced by struggling communities like this, communities torn apart by drugs and prison. Children like Jojo and his sister shouldn’t have to live like this, but it is their inheritance (their inheritance from their white father’s side is so better; their white grandfather refuses to accept that his son is in a relationship with a black woman). And yet, as with Ward’s previous novels, what I take away is not the poverty, the squalor, the drugs, the injustices, but the strength of some of the characters, their noble natures in the face of everything life flings at them, and their kindness to each other. Ward takes them up out of the dirt and offers hope where there was none.
Just superb. Again, this is a third novel, and again, I’ve been impressed with the other two. Here, though, I think this third one is even better than the others. This one doesn’t feature Agent Aaron Falk; it’s a stand-alone story set in the Queensland outback, a place so vast that your nearest neighbour might be a 3-hour drive away, and a place where conditions are so unforgiving that at the wrong time of year, just a couple of hours outside will kill the strongest man. The locals know the score, and know that in the event of a breakdown they must imperatively stay in their vehicle, with the aircon and the substantial stocks of water and food they all keep in refrigerated compartments in their 4-wheel drives. So when local farmer Cameron Bright is found dead in a remote spot (everywhere more than a few minutes from the rare farms is a remote spot), several kilometres from his car, it doesn’t make sense. What could have prompted him to do the unthinkable and leave his car? Was it suicide? Or murder? And if murder, which of the small handful of locals (‘local’ meaning someone within 3 or 4 hours) is responsible? And why?
Everything about this novel got right under my skin, and whenever I had to put it down, I couldn’t wait to pick it up again, and not just because I wanted to find out what happened. It was the characters; I wanted to be with them. I miss them now that I’ve finished reading. The setting, too; Harper portrays it so vividly that I thought I was there.
I didn’t quite know where to go next after The Lost Man, so I turned to good old Val McDermid for what avaland calls a ‘palate cleanser’, and a very enjoyable one at that. Much less gory and gruesome than several McDermids I’ve read, which is a good thing in my book.
Disgraced clinical psychiatrist Dr Charlie Flint receives an anonymous package of cuttings about a recent murder at her old Oxford college, a just-married bridegroom killed whilst his wedding party in the college was still underway. I won’t give more details, as the plot is quite complex and impossible to reduce to a nutshell. I did think that this novel required a small suspension of disbelief at times, which I mention only because in my experience that’s rare for McDermid, but I was so enjoying reading it that I was happy to play along.
>111 rachbxl: I made a list in three parts recently of all the crime/mystery authors I have 1. read all (or nearly all) they have written and watch for their books. 2. Have read more than six books.... 3. Have dabbled in (this last list is quite endless). I came to Val McDermid a bit late, and technically she should be in list 2 as I haven't read her Tony Hill series (because I have it on DVD), but I look for her books. I'll post the list over on my thread, if you are interested (it isn't as long as I thought it would be, but when you consider some of the authors have 20+ books....)
>113 avaland: I’ll be interested to see that list! I’ve only started reading McDermid in the last couple of years as well, and I’ve still got a lot to read.
Leila by Prayaag Akbar
This dystopian 2017 novel set in India in the near future is narrated by Shalini, wife of Rizwan, mother of Leila. The family enjoy a fairly privileged Western-style life, and try to get on with things without dwelling on what is happening in the increasingly totalitarian society they live in, with different sections of the community forced to live in walled ‘sectors’, guarded by the Repeaters (guards empowered by the regime, but really just thugs). Drinking water is scarce, and the air is dangerously polluted, but Shalini and Riz turn a blind eye and host a lavish party for Leila’s third birthday, complete with swimming pool, DJ, dancing, and alcohol. The guests love it, but the Repeaters and their friends are less impressed, and raid the party. Shalini is taken to Purity Camp to be re-educated, to help her realise that her way of life was inappropriate and wrong; she believes Leila to have been taken by the Repeaters (they are known to place children with more appropriate families); Riz is killed by the Repeaters. After a long stint in Purity Camp, she is transferred to the Towers, a big building in the insalubrious outskirts of this huge city, which houses woman of dubious morals who have now been corrected, and who are sent into the nicer parts of the city to do menial work. This is her life for years, all the while trying to find her way back to her daughter.
The cover blurb calls Leila ‘an Indian Handmaid’s Tale’, but I don’t think that’s fair; anyone comparing this with Atwood will be disappointed. Why can’t this just be Leila? I enjoyed it, and it kept me reading and wondering right till the end. I think parts of it would be more readily understandable and therefore meaningful to an Indian reader (the community-specific sectors, for example. And the family’s social standing; I was bemused by the lavish birthday party, having failed to pick up on the clues regarding their wealth in earlier chapters), but that’s not a criticism.
I see that this novel has been made into a Netflix series, though a quick look over the synopsis on Netflix suggests that the story has been considerably embellished, which is a shame.
I’ve read plenty of enthusiastic reviews of this memoir of the author’s Mormon upbringing and subsequent education, but I had decided that it wasn’t for me...until I was given it for my birthday. The friend who gave it generally has a good feel for what I will like, so I gave it a go. In short, I was drawn in immediately, and this would another of those enthusiastic reviews if it were long enough. Call it an enthusiastic comment instead. I loved it.
The accidental tourist is Macon, an unremarkable 40-something man, who some time ago accidentally fell into writing a moderately successful series of guidebooks called 'The Accidental Tourist'. The guides are for business travellers, and they cover only the parts of the USA and Europe that people might go for work. The assumption is that these travellers will want to know exactly what to expect, will want no surprises, not even nice ones, and will want everything to be as similar to how it is at home as possible. Under no circumstances are they expected to leave the big cities and go off the beaten track. And that just about sums up Macon's whole life and his approach to it, at least, until shortly before the novel opens. When we meet Macon, his safe, predictable life has been set off-kilter by the death of his 12-year old son, followed by the departure of his dependable, sociable, universally popular wife, who can no longer cope with Macon not showing his grief, not appearing to share hers. Macon trudges on in a heart-breaking, Ove-like way, with his job, his disobedient dog Edward, and his overwhelming, larger-than-life brothers and sister. Edward's misbehaving jars in Macon's ordered world, but he happily overlooks it, because Edward was his son's dog. However, the kennels where he has previously left Edward during his business trips now refuse to take him again, and Muriel, who works at the next kennels he tries to use, foists herself upon him as a dog-trainer, bringing her own brand of happy chaos into Macon's life.
I have enjoyed a couple of Anne Tyler's books, enough to want to read more, but not enough to seek them out at all costs. Anyway, I was happy to find this at a booksale, and I enjoyed it. Tyler does characters very well; she understands people, and she makes them real, with all their foibles and hang-ups.
I read it in French, but the English translation is Bitter Almonds
Lisa (labfs) read this recently, and it caught my eye. As Lisa said, there is very little plot. Edith, a Parisian freelance translator and interpreter, gets a new cleaning lady, Moroccan Fadila, who, she discovers, can neither read nor write. Despite being told that people of Fadila's age rarely succeed in learning, Edith takes it upon herself to teach Fadila. Progress is excruciatingly slow, at times non-existent. I know, it doesn't sound like a very enticing premise for a novel, but I loved it, the way the characters of the two women, so different, slowly become apparent, the strange friendship that grows between them, the way Edith has to review her assumptions about many things she thinks she knows, the way little snippets of French context pop up and then disappear. Cosset has a light touch, which makes for a style I enjoy. For example, we never meet Edith's children, and her husband only makes the odd brief appearance, her father in Lyon is mentionned once or twice, but it's enough to give the impression of Edith's life. Cosset applies the same light touch to Fadila and her background; the little Cosset gives paints a vivid picture, but she doesn't dwell upon it. This was a timely book for me to read as well, given that it goes into detail about the process of learning to read in French (I almost want to read the English translation just to see how it's handled). My 5-year old daughter (also Edith, pronounced the French way) already reads quite well in English, and is now learning to read in French - so much more straightforward than English! I leave the French to my daughter's teachers, but I found reading about it fascinating, and it made me more aware of why she might struggle with English in comparison.
No spoilers here, but I am still wondering, several days on, about the ending. Was it an entirely credible, if statistically unlikely, outcome, or was it an easy way of finishing an otherwise never-ending story? I can't decide.
I'll certainly be looking out for more by Laurence Cosset.
My mother is an Edith, pronounced the German way, which is much the same as the French way. After more than 60 years in Britain, she still hasn’t quite come to terms with being addressed as EEEE-dith (or worse, EEEE-di). I hope your daughter fares better!
>124 rachbxl: I have trouble remembering which of Tyler’s novels I’ve read, since - excellent though they are - they all seem to operate in much the same space. But that’s one that did really stick in my mind.
Thanks to avaland for recommending this utterly gripping, unputdownable, at times slightly implausible (but who cares when a story is this good?) thriller, set mainly in Siberia. Natalie March is a workaholic doctor in Washington DC, the daughter of Russian immigrants. When a young Russian ballet dancer, visiting the US on a brief exchange, turns up in her office claiming to be Natalie’s cousin, Natalie is initially sceptical, but soon convinced, and intrigued to hear that their grandmother, the Katerina M of the title, didn’t, in fact, die in the gulag, but escaped and had another child, the dancer’s mother. When the young dancer is then murdered, still in the USA, Natalie takes it upon herself to call her new-found aunt in Russia, and is invited to visit. Reluctantly, she is persuaded to do it for the sake of her mother, who can no longer travel. Off she sets, on what should be a fairly simple 2-week visit to family, but which instead leads her into the dark world of espionage, security services, undercover journalism and Russian jails.
I really couldn’t put it down.
ETA I want to go to Siberia now. There’s such a strong sense of place in this novel, and it’s made me want to go and see it for myself.
Despite (or maybe because of) having lived in Belgium for over 17 years now, it’s a country I still can’t get the measure of. It can be frustrating, even surreal, and often incomprehensible. Leaving my expat bubble and marrying a Belgian hasn’t made it easier to understand. Recently I was shocked to realise that I have hardly read any Belgian literature, which is odd, given that whenever I travel the first thing I reach for is a novel or two to help me get an idea of where I am. My experience of Belgian literature is limited to Amélie Nothomb and Dimitri Verhulst, which, for all their qualities, are never going to help the reader understand Belgium. So I set out to try to understand Belgium through its literature, and the first novel by Belgian writer Adeline Dieudonné, published last year, looked like a good place to start - it’s entitled La vraie vie (‘Real Life’), after all.
However, I quickly realised that La vraie vie wasn’t going to help me any more than Nothomb does. In the first 50 pages we have an abusive husband/father, a spare bedroom full of stuffed hunting trophies, including a hyena, a mother who is described as an ‘amoeba’, so invisible does she try to make herself, and a completely surreal (and very gruesome) accident involving an ice cream man, witnessed by the 10-year old narrator and her little brother, who subsequently turns first mute, and then disturbingly violent (dismembering the neighbourhood cats, and then his mother’s favourite goat).
I nearly gave up, but I’m glad I didn’t. Yes, this is a surprising novel, and no, it wasn’t what I was looking for, but it more than made up for that. The anonymous narrator is transformed by events (notably the ice cream accident, but not only) into a fighter, someone who refuses to conform to the binary world her father offers her, in which, he tells her, everyone is either predator or prey.
I just watched a clip on YouTube of Adeline Dieudonné being interviewed about La vraie vie (Amélie Nothomb is also in the studio, and Dieudonné fights back tears when Nothomb tells her what a wonderful novel she has written). Asked where this novel came from, she replies that she took inspiration from her wealth of experience with improvisation in the theatre, from which she learned just to jump in and get on with it. I would say that it took guts to jump in the way she did, and even more guts to carry it through. Having started out quite lukewarm about it, by the time I finished it I could say that I really enjoyed this novel. At times it was hard to read, but the character of the narrator (15 years old by the end of the novel), her intelligence, her resilience, the lengths she will go to to bring back her little brother’s smile after the ice cream accident, made for an exhilarating read.
Why this book? An intriguing story—a crime novel—that mixes the fishing industry with the perfume industry, and with a tough, screwed up, 2nd generation Russian female protagonist (and rich) How is that not intriguing? I wasn't sure I was going to warm up to Pirio Kasparov, the protagonist in this debut novel, but I did. Both the story and Pirio are complicated things. In the end I found it to be a very satisfying read and a refreshingly different crime novel."
PS: I think I can guess which part of the thriller you thought less plausible.
Re “understanding Belgium” - I wonder if it’s even possible to use that phrase in a positive sense? Has anyone ever seriously claimed “I understand Belgium”? Perhaps it’s one of those Zen things where the first step to enlightenment is accepting that you know nothing...
Have you read Hugo Claus?
>132 dchaikin: Thanks, Dan.
>133 thorold: Ha, no, I don’t think anyone can have claimed to understand Belgium, or if they have done they’re not being honest. And I don’t think that reading a few novels will turn me into the exception! What I find it frustrating not to understand, though, is not so much the ‘official’ Belgium which exists, just about, at state level (there, yes, I am happy in my ignorance, and I like your idea that that is enlightenment), but ‘my’ Belgium, and what makes the people around me tick, collectively. I lived for several years in northern Spain, and whilst it was far more foreign to me initially than Belgium ever has been, I was able to work out the local codes, and when I wanted to (not always), I could even fit in. I’ve also lived in Italy, and spent extended periods in Poland, same story. But Belgium eludes me. Or the Belgians do. Or the Walloons/Bruxellois do, because ‘my’ Belgium is Wallonia, where I live, and Brussels, where I used to live and still work. I haven’t read any Hugo Claus, though I keep meaning to get to The Sorrow of Belgium, not that I think it will shed any light on my day-to-day life in Wallonia and Brussels.
In an all-too-possible near future, abortion has been outlawed in the USA, the Personhood Amendment has given foetuses rights whilst removing those of the women who carry them, and has made IVF illegal (the embryos can’t give their consent), and the Every Child Needs Two law is about to come in, making it impossible for single people to adopt. Leni Zumas uses her lead characters, all women, to illustrate what this means. The Biographer is single (and also a schoolteacher), and really wants a child; she is desperate either to adopt or to undergo a successful round of IVF before the new laws come in. The Daughter, one of Roberta’s star pupils, is pregnant by a callous schoolmate (her best friend was jailed for having an illegal abortion). The Mender is a healer, known locally as a witch, who lives a reclusive life out of town, and who provides herbal remedies for women with no health insurance. She pines for the daughter she gave away as a newborn. The Wife appears to have it all, the husband and the two children, but she fantasises about driving off a cliff.
I like dystopian fiction anyway, and I particularly liked this one. Whenever I had to put it down, I couldn’t wait to get back to it.
I hadn’t heard of this novel, or its author, when it caught my eye in the wonderful bookshop in Helsinki I mentioned up-thread (I am back in Helsinki right now, looking forward to a return visit after my meeting this afternoon).
In 1968, Veronica Moon, a (very) junior photographer on a local paper in Essex (she only got the job because her dad put in a good word for her, because that’s just how the world works; she thinks it’s perfectly normal to need to rely on the men around her) goes to Dagenham in her own time, to take some photos of the women striking (this really happened - the sewing machinists at the Ford car plant strike, calling for equal pay). There, she meets Leonie Barratt, writer and journalist and second wave feminist. Leonie takes Vee to the pub (Vee asks for a sweet martini and lemonade, an acceptable tipple for a lady (though not, usually, at this time of day), and is shocked to see Leonie and her feminist friends (women, not ladies) drinking pints of cider), and thus begins Vee’s induction into feminism...and a lifelong friendship between Vee and Leonie.
In 2018, Erica, Leonie’s niece, is a harassed mother of a young child who is trying to juggle family and work and not quite managing. After her mother’s death, she found a box of her aunt Leonie’s papers in the attic, a box which contained copies of every photo that Veronica Moon had ever published (Vee had gone on from Dagenham to become a hugely successful photographer, using her art to promote her feminist message). Anxious to establish herself as a credible academic after maternity leave and working part-time, she decides to put together an exhibition about Veronica Moon, an undertaking which starts out as a professional project and turns into something much more personal.
I found the structure of the novel to be very effective. Each section starts with the text introducing a particular section of the exhibition, which leads into a look at what Veronica and Leonie were doing at that point in time, followed by chapters set in 2018, and one of Leonie’s long-running ‘Dear John’ letters (a newspaper column taking the form of a letter from a feminist to a man). Lots of different strands, all brought together neatly by the end.
I’ve read several character-driven novels recently, and this is another. Vee in 2018 is a formidable, crotchety recluse, who lost a good chunk of her memories together with the brain tumour which was removed 10 years ago. She hasn’t taken a photograph in 20 years, not since Leonie’s death, from which she hasn’t recovered. Their friendship is a beautiful thing, almost a character in its own right, a thing that changes shape, ebbs and flows. Erica is immediately recognisable to me as a woman of my generation. She is what we’ve become, with her juggling and her guilt, and it doesn’t make a logical follow-on from what we see Vee, Leonie and their sisters doing in the 1960s and 70s. Vee is perplexed by Erica’s nose job, her uncomfortable high heels, her make-up, all these things that the patriarchy makes us think we should have or do.
I can’t say how much I enjoyed this novel (yet another that I couldn’t put down). The characters, the way they move in and out of real events (Dagenham, but also the 1970 Miss World event in London, disrupted by Women’s Liberation activists, Margaret Thatcher becoming Prime Minister, etc), the grief still felt by Vee at the loss of her friend, the way Vee feels her way around in the dark created by her partial memory loss.
Apart from the enjoyment it gave me, a great thing about this novel is that it has given me the rage (again). I consider myself to be a feminist, but spending time with Veronica Moon has woken me up, as it did Erica, and made me rage about how there’s still such a long way to go, how in too many ways we’ve gone backwards since the second wave. There’s a useful bibliography at the end of the novel, and I’ve downloaded several samples to my Kindle, and I’m already halfway through Jessica Valenti’s Sex Object: A Memoir, which makes sobering reading.
Sex Object: A Memoir by Jessica Valenti
I suppose the title should have been a warning that this book is more about Jessica Valenti, feminist writer, than about feminism per se, but in many ways the two are inextricable (see her Guardian columns), and in any case it’s served to intensify my rage. Valenti, an Italian-American born in New York in the late 1970s, tells the story of her life, but it’s the story of her life as a sex object, not a role she ever chose, but one which was thrust upon her by society. Some of it is hair-raising; clearly, being a teenage girl in small-town northern England in the 1980s was quite different to being one in New York at the same time. I can’t say, though, that I never experienced the kind of thing she talks about (cat-calling, whistles, flashers, etc etc etc); it’s just that my experience was less intense, and for me these events were the exception, whereas for Valenti in New York they were the norm. Not that the objectivisation of women stops when they grow up, of course, and there’s ample example of that here. The most shocking part of the book comes at the end, in the form of a selection (just a selection, mind) of the abusive sexist messages she has received over the years in response to her work. The hatred and the vitriol left me speechless.
Whilst this wasn’t a comfortable read, in another way I did enjoy it, because I admire Valenti’s writing. She is eloquent and articulate, and always a pleasure to read.
I've bought Please look after Mom a few months ago, as I was willing to discover a new Corean author. Your comments are not very encouraging, but they piqued my curiosity and I might give a try to this book earlier than expected!
>142 RidgewayGirl: Yes, The Red Clocks is a bit close to reality for comfort.
>143 dchaikin: Thanks, Dan. I love that we rarely read the same books, but can still find each other’s thoughts on books interesting.
>144 wandering_star: Hope you enjoy it!
Available in English as The Braid
I now know that this has been a bestseller in various different countries. Had I known that, I probably wouldn’t have read it, which might not have been a bad thing. It’s not a long novel, and it’s easy to read, but it took me ages to finish it because I wasn’t enjoying it...but because it’s so short and easy to read it seemed silly to give up.
La tresse follows 3 different, apparently unconnected women, one in India, one in Sicily and one in Canada. Three because there are 3 interwoven strands in a plait or braid (the braid is important). The first, Smita, is an Untouchable, condemned to empty latrines for a living; desperate for her daughter Lalita to have a better life, she flees with her, and on their way to their better life they have their hair (braids!) cut off at a temple, an offering to Vishnu. Giulia, the second, works in her family’s traditional Sicilian wig-making business, which has always prided itself on using local hair but which is going to have to find a new business model to survive (Indian hair from the temple?). Meanwhile, Sarah, the Canadian, is a ruthlessly successful lawyer who has always put career before family...until cancer makes her lose her hair (so she needs a wig) and take stock.
You know those books that seem like they were written with the film version in mind? This is one. As a book it just didn’t work for me. There’s probably a good story in there, but I found La tresse too glib, too superficial.
I came to hear about La tresse not, as I said, because it’s been a bestseller, but because it’s been turned into an Amnesty International-backed children’s picture book, La tresse, ou le voyage de Lalita, which my daughter was given for her birthday, and which tells a simplified version of just the Indian part, with the focus on Lalita, the little girl. It’s one of my daughter’s favourite books, and I love it, too. It’s beautifully illustrated, and the story is simply and effectively told. As well as being a lovely story, it’s been a springboard for all sorts of discussions, about the Untouchables, about how not all children have the right to go to school, about poverty, about Vishnu and Hinduism, leading on to other religions, and so on.
>146 rachbxl: I did not like this book either. Same reasons as you, plus a simplistic description of India (I can't judge for the Sicilian part). I felt the information was taken from a Guide du Routard, and had the same "touristy-authentical" feel. Good to hear about the child version.
What to say? I had a momentary panic at the beginning, as I sometimes do with books I really want to read (what if I can’t get into it?), but I let myself be carried along by the sublime story-telling, and before I knew it I was halfway through. A friend of mine says she thinks The Handmaid’s Tale was perfect as it was, and that Atwood should have left it at that, but I disagree, because I enjoyed this one so much (it’s years since I read The Handmaid’s Tale, though, and this has made me want to re-visit it). There are many things I liked about The Testaments, but something that struck me as I read it was how Atwood manages to deal brilliantly with, on the one hand, the big structure of the novel and the magnificently-imagined Gilead setting, whilst, on the other, still excelling at providing little details, little quirks of character, little snippets of dialogue, which aren’t needed to further the story, but which just make it even richer. When I say snippets of dialogue, I’m thinking of some of the exchanges between a teenager who has grown up in Canada, and a 20-something woman from Gilead. They may as well be from two different planets. Brilliant stuff.
I saw your review of La tresse when I was halfway through the novel. I should have taken your word for it!
>148 dchaikin: ‘I’m going to pass’ - the thought that you might even consider not passing on this one made me giggle. I can confidently say it’s not one for you, Dan.
No idea how well Korean translate into French or English.
Regarding La Tresse, at least you can say you read it and talk about it with full knowledge. To be honnest, I don't know what to think about the success of this book.
>152 dchaikin: Intrigued. Off to Kay’s thread right away.
The three editors, all well-known writers and feminists, were, they recount in the introduction, having a drink together and despairingly discussing the runaway success of Fifty Shades of Grey. They decided they would counter it with Fifty Shades of Feminism, for which they invited 50 (well-known) women from around the world to write a short piece about feminism (they say that their main problem was limiting it to 50, as between them they could think of hundreds of inspirational women who would have been suitable). The brief was broad, and the contributors interpreted it each in their own way; after all, aren’t there as many forms of feminism as there are women (and pro-feminism men)? The book is a joy to read. It’s like being at a cocktail party at which each guest is more interesting, more engaging and more eloquent than the last. A lot of what they say is shocking, but I took away much more hope than I have done from some of my recent reading; we know there’s a long way still to go, but let’s not forget how far we have come.
A gothic novel set in a long-abandoned country house in late 1960’s England. The house has been bought by a rich American, who has commissioned Frances, the narrator, to survey the gardens before he arrives. When she gets to the house, she finds Peter, who is to survey the house and its contents, and his girlfriend Cara, who are not quite what they seem. An unlikely and strangely intense friendship quickly develops between Fran and the couple, and little work gets done...
It’s a very atmospheric novel, claustrophobic (I wanted to get away from the house), and the tension is maintained throughout. It didn’t entirely work for me (it failed to draw me in as much as it needed to to work successfully), but I suspect it would work for a lot of people. The wrong moment for me, perhaps.
English translation available: Fever Dream
Soon after finishing this book, I wrote an articulate and insightful review, which somehow didn't post; a shame, because I'm just not feeling quite so articulate and insightful today. And doubly a shame, because it's an almost impossible task to write about this book without making it sound odd. Well, it is odd, very odd, but wonderfully odd. I tore through it (it isn't long), and I couldn't wait to get back to it whenever I had to put it down. Whilst I feel that the Spanish title, which translates as 'rescue distance', is a more fitting title, a 'fever dream' is exactly what I felt I was plunged into every time I picked the book up, and even now, a month later, thinking about the book takes me back to the feverish dream world (is it a dream? Is it real?) What really surprised me was just how accessible this book was, actually very easy to read, despite its often hallucinatory nature. The narrator's voice cuts through the dream, clear as a bell.
I'm not going to be able to do it justice here, but it will be one of my books of the year.
I remember my mum enjoying several of Anne Tyler's books about 20 years ago, and passing them on to me. I gave Tyler a go, but honestly, why would anyone want to read a novel (or even more than one!) about boring middle-aged people living completely ordinary lives? Two decades on, having joined the ranks of the boring middle-aged, I have a lot of time for Tyler as a writer. In fact, I don't know anyone who does ordinary people better. This portrait of a marriage and all that goes with it had me nodding my head in recognition as yet again Tyler hits the nail right on the head. It's not just that she gets what makes people tick, it's that she manages to get that across to her readers so effortlessly.
I just had to read more Samanta Schweblin right away, and I chose this 2015 collection of short stories. Here we are again, back in the disquieting world of these characters who have gone mad, or are going mad. Some of them teeter on the invisble line between sanity and madness, some crossed it long ago, others aren't quite there yet, but their mother is, or someone else close to them, and they all operate in the strange dream-world which characterises Distancia de rescate (Fever Dream) (but once again, I was fascinated by how the voice with which Schweblin describes this unclear dream-world is disconcertingly clear). My favourite story is the first one, 'Nada de toto esto', where the narrator has spent too much of her life accompanying her mother on visits to other people's houses. Not social visits, but to satisfy the mother's curiosity about how other people live. The narrator's discomfort is so acute that it made me squirm.
I’d been feeling very tired and frazzled, and couldn’t settle on a book, so it was time for some Val McDermid, and she did the trick, as usual. I was actually saving this one, the fourth DCI Karen Pirie novel, as I wanted to read the third first (having already read the first two), but it was an emergency. Reading it out of turn wasn’t such a big deal, as McDermid gives just enough information about what has happened previously for it all to hang together, though now I really want to fill in the gaps, as I know that something major happened (no spoilers here!), but I don’t know how or why.
I like McDermid’s books so much because she reliably turns out utterly gripping stories which, unlike too many other gripping stories out there, are superbly written. In the acknowledgments at the back of the book, she thanks family members for tolerating her love of words (I paraphrase; I don’t have the book here), and that love of words, of language, shines through all her work. I love how each time we meet a new character, even if it’s just a man working in a shop that we’re never going to see again, she gives a pithy physical description. She’s so good at this that I can always imagine just what these people look like, which makes the setting of her books very real.
Out of Bounds came out in 2016, making it, I think, the McDermid novel I have read closest to its publication date. All her novels are full of little details which anchor them very much in their time of writing, without making them seem dated (so her books from 10-15 years ago have bits about internet access, for example, which make me smile in recognition - little fragments of everyday life which came and went). It was interesting to read a contemporary McDermid and to see such a good reflection of life now.
Odd that you mention the internet access conundrum from a while back. I was thinking about that this morning in relation to Patricia Cornwell's books, where so much depends on computers, and wondering if all those mainframe references would mean anything to people in a few years (or even now).
In the past year or so I reread The Thirty-Nine Steps and thought that it couldn't really have a contemporary equivalent, as so much of it is sleuthing without high tech, which would never happen now. It was a throughly enjoyable reread and current technology wasn't missed at all, because of the level of writing.
Back to McDermid though - you've made me think of going back to her after a long time away.
Translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett
Another 500 pages of minute detail about someone else’s life, this time about the author’s childhood. I still don’t know how he does it; it could so easily be deadly dull, but it is mesmerising. It’s been a couple of years since I read volume 2, and I had tried to read this one straight after that, but gave up as I wasn’t in the mood (too much of a good thing?) This week I was very much in the mood, and was happy to be re-immersed in Knausgård’s world. He is only a few years older than I am, so we grew up at roughly the same time, but that’s about all our early lives had in common...and yet, in painting this meticulously detailed picture of his own childhood (though, of course, this is an autobiographical novel rather than an autobiography; only the author knows where the line between the two is), Knausgård is actually offering us a universal picture of childhood and adolescence, of growing up. The circumstances are different, but the feelings and emotions are the same.
I've heard Knausgaard speak twice at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, in 2017 and 2018, and enjoyed both of his talks. I found him to be insightful and humble, and listening to him speak felt more like an intimate conversation than a talk in front of several hundred fans.
>167 SassyLassy: Sorry Sassy, I’ve only just seen your post now, as we must have cross-posted. You made me think: I know I said I don’t find McDermid’s books dated, but that’s because I was around and remember the things she talks about. I do wonder what, say, a 25-year old would make of the McDermids from 15 years ago. I like to think that they are a good reflection of those years, but for someone who wasn’t there they might be too full of missed references.
What better way to round off my reading year than with a trip to Three Pines with the wonderful Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and co? It is years since I started reading this wonderful series, but this is still only the 5th, because whilst I love them, I find that they really only work for me at specific times, like these Christmas holidays, when I have time to slow right down. I can’t think of anything better to read by the fire, with the Christmas tree twinkling in the corner.
>168 rachbxl: Oh, my! How did I forget to return to Knausgaard? I read the first book and, like you, was expecting to be bored. And like you, found it anything but. I didn't have the second volume at hand and drifted off to other things. I am going to go order a copy right now. Thanks for the reminder