I’m a book lover. E-readers are all very well, but I like the feel and the smell of a real book. I’ve packed a pile of random books, costing £1 each. You can read my reviews below. My ratings system is:
***** A blistering read – highly recommended.
**** Very good; recommended. *** Worth a read.
**Well, it was only a quid…. *Not enough life left
THE WEIGHT OF WATER by ANITA SHRIEVE***
The Weight of Water uses a true murder story as its backdrop. In 1873, on a remote island off the coast of New Hampshire, two Norwegian women were brutally murdered. A third escaped, fleeing to the coast and hiding in a cave. A young Prussian man was accused of the murders and he was tried and executed for the crime.
Anita Shrieve imagines a different set of circumstances on the night of the murder. A present day photographer, Jean, travels to the islands to investigate the legendary murders. In the course of her research she discovers a faded memoir, written by the woman who survived the events of that night. The story is narrated by the survivor, now old and close to death, looking back at her life and reliving the night of the murders and its consequences.
The fishing islands off New Hampshire were extremely bleak and their few residents suffered extreme hardship. The desolate lives led by the fishermen and their families, many of whom were immigrants, are beautifully described in stark and chilling language.
The story moves between the old memoir and the photographer’s narrative. Jean begins to see some parallels between her own life and the life of the survivor; themes of love, passion and betrayal are common elements. Overall it is a compelling tale, well written and thoughtful.
13 June 2013
SOUNDS OF THE RIVER by DA CHEN***
Da Chen grew up in a small village in the far south of China. The book opens with him having been accepted at Beijing University to study English. Before leaving his village, he gathers soil from the riverbank so that he can always feel close to home. On the doors of the family home, Chen’s grandfather had painted the line “Sounds of the river will linger forever in our ears“, and Da Chen thinks often of his homeland, the mountains and the river when he is far from them.
This is a charming autobiography, describing the author’s passionate and determined struggle to learn English and escape the confines of China. He is at his best when evoking his home, his family and the harsh rural life they lead. His relationship with his father is particularly touching. Da Chen describes his village, where “a wooden bridge swung in the wind and squeaked at the touch of villagers’ feet” and branches of the willow bamboo peach tree “dipped in the mirror of water” with “petals that gave of a divine fragrance of another world, another time.” Such prose can transport the reader to the village.
The crowded avenues of Beijing with unending waves of bicyclists and streams of cars, trucks and people are in stark contrast to Da Chen’s earlier life. He savours his freedom as he comes of age mixing with other students and tasting city life, but he never loses sight of his goal to study in the US – a highly prized accolade awarded to very few students.
Da Chen describes the corruption of the officials who will ultimately decide his fate and reluctantly he bribes people where he can, without reward. Even the Buddhist monks expect a fee for their prayers. Eventually, as a result of his perseverance and a couple of lucky breaks, he succeeds in getting to the US, where he remains to this day.
This book provides an insight into both rural and city life in China and the cultural divide between east and west. It has shades of “Wild Swans” although it is not as moving. It is, however, an engaging and interesting memoir.
9 June 2013
THE DEPORTEES by RODDY DOYLE***
Originally published in a newspaper started by 2 Nigerian journalists and aimed at immigrants to Ireland, The Deportees is a collection of stories about the immigrant experience in Ireland. The theme running throughout the collection is of someone born in Ireland meeting someone born elsewhere, normally with unforeseen consequences.
“Guess Who’s Coming to the Dinner” describes a father’s hapless reaction to his daughter bringing home a Nigerian man. The father’s attempts not to appear racist before the visit are hilarious. “Phil Lynott was black love”, his wife reminded him. “Phil Lynott was Irish – he was from the Crumlin….he was civilised” her husband retorted. Unsurprisingly, the dinner guest is not what the father expected at all!
And Jimmy Rabbitte, who first appeared in The Committments, is back, putting together yet another band. Fat Gandhi, who runs the Celtic Tandoori, asks them to play at his daughter’s birthday party which is a surreal event.
The tales are inventive, funny and incisive. Doyle is a master of the construction of small slices of life, full of humour, despair and triumph. This book is a great read. Roddy Doyle is a magnificent observer of human frailties. I would love to have him as a dinner guest one day, although I would be somewhat worried that I might recognise the occasion in a later novel!
2 June 2013
JOURNEYS IN THE DEAD SEASON by SPENCER JORDAN**
The author juxtaposes 2 experiences in this novel. The present day narrator is a prisoner on remand in Durham jail who is recalling his crimes against young girls in his diary. The second is the recollections of an Army Captain in 1922 as he visits some of his old comrades from the Great War and writes his book on horticulture. The prisoner is reading this book whilst in jail.
I enjoyed the sections voiced by the soldier. His observations of nature were delightful and his descriptions of the time he spent in hospital recovering from the mental problems brought on by his war experiences were sensitively written. His unannounced appearances at the homes of his old comrades were full of poignant moments.
The prisoner’s story was a less enjoyable read. The crimes he committed were disturbing, however it was more the contrast between this diary and the soldier’s recollections that shed a less favourable light on this part of the book.
I failed to grasp the links between the stories. At best, there were tenuous links to incarceration (hospital v prison), psychological issues (shell-shock v an inability to see the wrong in child abduction) and gardening (both shared a love of horticulture).
The soldier’s tale would have stood up on its own: a gentle and moving story. I wanted to finish the book to see how the soldier fared. By the end I still didn’t care about the prisoner.
28 May 2013
FASCINATION by WILLIAM BOYD** (Although this book was not “only a quid”, this rating felt the closest!)
This was a book selected for our Book Club, so I had to download it in order to read it here in Italy. Was it the fact that I read it in e-book format then that made me struggle to finish it? I don’t think that it was, although e-books are not my favourite medium. Call me old fashioned….
Fascination is a collection of short stories. I am a huge fan of the short story; Helen Dunmore’s Love of Fat Men, Joyce’s Dubliners and the magnificent collection of essays, Pulphead by John Jeremiah Sullivan spring to mind immediately. I like the fact that you can dip in and out of a collection, and I admire the way the best short story writers can develop and deliver a plot with so few words.
I have enjoyed previous novels by William Boyd, particularly An Ice Cream War and Any Human Heart, so I was looking forward to reading this book. Unfortunately it left me feeling distinctly unsatisfied. There were one or two stories which did draw me in, notably Varengeville in which a small boy is sent out on his bicycle each afternoon whilst his mother entertains her lover. The child is well sketched; I felt his rejection and loneliness. And Fascination, the title story, was well-structured and had pace as it flitted between scenes.
Others had promise but failed to deliver. The Ghost of a Bird, about an injured soldier in the Second World War started strongly but petered out towards the end. Similarly, The Woman on the Beach with a Dog got buried in the sand.
Boyd failed to sustain a compelling narrative in most of the stories, and I struggled to find the plot in some of them; others were exceedingly thin. The enduring themes appeared to be infidelity, angst, dissatisfaction and unrequited love. Characters on the whole lacked empathy. So, a disappointing read overall, but I hope it doesn’t put us off returning to the genre.
22 May 2013
THE HELP by KATHRYN STOCKETT ****
Set in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s, The Help is the story of 3 women whose lives converge at the point when racial issues are bubbling to the surface and the movement for change is gathering pace.
The author was born in Jackson, Mississippi and raised in a family where a black maid cooked, cleaned and looked after the children. Although Kathryn Stockett says that The Help is a work of fiction, it seems as though at the very least her personal experiences drew her towards this difficult topic.
The role of narrator shifts between 2 black maids, Aibileen and Minny and a young white girl, Skeeter, whose passion for justice brings all 3 together to expose the inequalities of the segregated society they live in. The women are all well drawn characters and are alive on the page. Aibileen is practical, intelligent and a great influencer, whether she is dealing with the children in her care or using her admirable powers of persuasion with her best friend, Minny. Minny is fiery, sassy and funny, a fine cook who speaks before she thinks and frequently lives to regret it when she gets sacked yet again. Skeeter has all of the enthusiasm and high principals of youth; she wants to change the world but ends up writing the help column at the local paper. But she remains determined to do more, and enlists the help of Aibileen and Minny in a project that could prove disastrous to each of them.
Aside from these women, there are also some excellent minor characters. Skeeter’s mother is consumed by the desire to get her daughter married off, and married off well. And Hilly, the white, middle-class woman who thinks that the town bends to her will; she underestimates her opposition.
This book was a great read. Funny, moving, shocking, sad but ultimately affirming. It is also well written, handling difficult issues with sensitivity and courage.
16 May 2013
LAST ORDERS by GRAHAM SWIFT *****
Last Orders is simply brilliant. On the surface it is the simple story of Bermondsey butcher, Jack Dodd’s, last wish to have his ashes scattered into the sea at Margate. Its brilliance lies in Swift’s gentle exposure of the key characters in Jack’s life – Vince, Ray, Lenny and Vic – who agree that the carrying out of Jack’s dying wish is “Down to us, I reckon. The inner circle.” The characters, from the insurance clerk to the funeral director, are beautifully drawn and immensley compelling.
I knew I would love this book when on the second page I read: “He tugs at his collar where his tie isn’t.” The language throughout is beautiful, sparse but precise. Despite the subject, this is far from a miserable book; it is witty and evocative, funny and humane. Its interest never wanes as the individual stories unfold and the intricacies and interlocking elements are revealed, along with the secrets and the lies. It seems that Jack and his inner circle knew each other well, yet not at all.
Last Orders won the Booker Prize in 1996. I can think of few more deserving winners.
24 April 2013
A PIANO IN THE PYRENEES by TONY HAWKS **
I loved Tony Hawk’s previous books, Round Ireland with a Fridge and Playing the Moldovans at Tennis. Both books were based on his experiences as he attempted to win ridiculous bets made with his friend, the comedian Arthur Smith. A Piano in the Pyrenees was a rather less frivolous concept – and perhaps it was the worse for that. It tells the story of Hawk’s impulsive house purchase in a tiny village at the foot of the mountains and his hapless attempts to carry out various improvements whilst trying to integrate into the local village life. It was a very easy read with a few humorous bits that genuinely made me laugh out loud, but it read more like a string of random events than an engaging account of the challenges of overseas home ownership. Hawk’s writes with honesty about his unsuccessful search for love, and that element of the book felt more genuine than the boyish tales of sweaty changing rooms, the impact of eating too many courgettes or making rude jokes in French about your non-French speaking friend. Too light, too forced, too bad.
6 April 2013
BURNING BRIGHT by HELEN DUNMORE ***
Burning Bright intertwines two stories, one contemporary and one buried deep in the past. Nadine, a 16 year old who runs away from home with her older, Finnish, lover, Kai slowly realises that Kai does not love her, but is grooming her so that he can rent her out to a Government Minister with special tastes. Enid is an elderly lady, a sitting tenant in the crumbling house to which Kai brings Nadine. Enid’s story is one of past seduction: involved in her youth in a love triangle with 2 other women, she is the unknowing cause of a crime of passion. Enid and Nadine form an unforeseen friendship. Enid is able to tell her story to Nadine and provide support when it gradually dawns on the young girl that she is seen as a saleable asset.
The contemporary references to the grooming of young, vulnerable girls are both thought-provoking and disturbing. Enid’s tale of love in a society where relationships with women were taboo is fascinating; her description of the Manchester Ladies Club for like-minded ladies to drink, play cards and enjoy themselves is seductive and sympathetic. The book was hard to put down, and the desire for Nadine and Enid to triumph over the control of others keeps the interest alive right to the end.
1 April 2013
THE GREAT RAILWAY BAZAAR by PAUL THEROUX ****
Paul Theroux is a great travel writer, so expectations were high for this journey, largely by rail, from London to Japan via Europe and Asia. From the start his vivid descriptions and dry sense of humour bring the journey to life: “grey-haired English couples who appeared to be embarking, with armfuls of novels, on expensive literary adulteries.” Whilst country after country whizzes past the train windows, the destination seems to be more important than the journey itself. Theroux admits he slept (or most certainly drank) through much of the journey and spent little time in those places where he disembarked. Characters drifted through the narrative, leaving me thirsting for more information about the people he met, such as the grumpy Buddhist monk. I found that the Asian adventures through India, Vietnam and Thailand were hard to separate, but very much liked the Japanese experience. The descriptions of the various time-capsuled trains were fascinating; who wouldn’t appreciate the chrome gin- bottle holder on the Khyber Mail? I learned two fascinating things. Firstly, that Afghanistan had not a single inch of railway track; I checked, and the first stretch of railway opened in 2011. Secondly, whilst in Istanbul in discussion with a Turkish novelist, the novelist points out a newspaper headline proclaiming that Pablo Neruda is dead; the sentence was left hanging. This led me to check out Neruda’s work, and I found he had written the most beautiful love sonnets such as:
“So I love you because I know no other way than this: where I does not exist, nor you, so close that your hand on my chest is my hand, so close that your eyes close as I fall asleep.”
Theroux crams a lot into his writing but stay the course and you can get a lot out of it.
17 March 2013