Howard’s End is on the Landing by Susan Hill

Howards EndUnlike author Susan Hill I don’t live in an old rambling farmhouse with aged beams and cosy nooks from which I can look upon “gently rising hills and graceful trees”. Nor sadly do I have an elmwood staircase that could take me up to a landing with overflowing bookcases. But I do know the sensation of coming face to face with a mountain of unread books.

Climbing the stairs one day in search of a book she knew was there, Hill discovers “at least a dozen, perhaps two dozen, perhaps two hundred” that she had never read. Among them are recommendations from the Richard and Judy book club, Booker prize winners, classics, childhood annuals (charmingly she still gets The Beano every year) and an old alphabet book.  She resolves to spend a year reading only those books already on her shelves, forgoing the purchase of new ones, which, she admits, is a strange decision for someone who is both author and publisher.

I wanted to repossess my books, to explore what I had accumulated over a lifetime of reading and to map this house of many volumes. There are enough here to divert, instruct, entertain, amaze, amuse, edify, improve, enrich me for far longer than a year and every one of them deserves to be taken down and dusted off, opened and read.

We get some delightful and often surprising titbits: about the time when as an English student at King’s College London, she  devoured detective stories as light relief from Beowulf (one can understand why!). Or the unexpected encounter with EM Forster in the London Library. Having bent down to pick up the book an elderly man had dropped on his foot she looks up to find herself looking into the watery eyes of one of the grandest of the grand old men of literature. But here he was “slightly stooping and wholly unmemorable.” and yet “the wonder of the encounter has never faded.”

 

I warmed to her after reading the chapter where she recollects the magic of receiving the gift of books as a child. It was impossible to disagree with her that today, with such easy access to books, we have forgotten how special they were in our past. For Hill growing up in the 1940s they were rare treats.  Every Christmas brought annuals that she read so often she could memorise the stories but the most precious gift she remembers is her first pop up book. Some of these she still has and one of the pleasures of her year of reading from her bookshelves is going through the collection.

Over the year, Hill draws up a list of 40 titles that she thinks she “could manage with alone, for the rest of my life”. It’s absolutely not a ‘best books ever written’ type of list but ones she considers has special meaning for her. The list tells you a lot about her taste and her foibles. Trollope gets two places, as does P G Wodehouse; Dickens is there with Our Mutual Friend, Virginia Woolf with To the Lighthouse and E. M Forster (not Howard’s End surprisingly but A Passage to India).

The list is significant for its omissions. There is little in the way of European authors unless you count Dostoevsky as ‘European’ – no Zola or Camus however. The Americans are represented by Edith Wharton (the House of Mirth) and Henry James (Washington Square). Her rationale for the poetry choices tell you that she is in essence a conservative reader.  “I do not read much poetry now, and rarely anything new,” she admits. “I know I should. Should. Ought. But I don’t and that’s that. Perhaps I don’t need to. I can recite the whole of ‘The Lady of Shalott’, after all.”

She is without question a woman of firm opinions. Some I found it hard not to agree with, such as her love of the physical feel of a book (she loathes e-readers) and her aversion to the fashion for reading the “very latest book everyone is talking about.” She has little patience with people who pretend to have read certain classics or who boast about the number of books they read each week (“Why has reading turned into a form of speed dating?” she asks). Jane Austen she finds boring but considers Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower to be a masterpiece and Elizabeth Jane Howard’s work is long overdue for a re-issue.

The interjections spice up what could easily have become a pleasant but otherwise inconsequential journey through one woman’s reading preferences and habits. Hill has an edge that nicely counterbalances the sometimes whimsical tone and in her final selection of 40 has made certain to stir up debate.

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith

lastpaintingFact and fiction blend seamlessly in The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, Dominic Smith’s remarkable novel about choices and consequences and the power of art to stir our deepest emotions.

New York lawyer Marty de Groot is the latest member of his family to take possession of a Dutch landscape painting called ‘At the Edge of a Wood’, believed to be the only surviving work by Sara de Vos, one of the few women admitted to the prestigious Guild of St Luke. It hangs above his bed in the Manhattan apartment he shares with his wife Rachel.

Family legend holds that the painting is “cursed”, responsible for the“300 years of gout, rheumatism, heart failure, intermittent barrenness and stroke in his bloodline.” Ever since Pieter de Groot bought it, in 1637, at an auction, none of its owners  has lived past the age of 60.

Still, de Groot values his family heirloom. Every night he studies the painting, admiring the haunting quality of the scene in which a young girl emerges from a snowy thicket above a frozen river.  He knows it intimately. One night in 1957 something doesn’t seem quite right with the painting. The frame looks different. And the canvas is dirtier than normal. Closer examination shows it’s a fake; a meticulously crafted replacement for the original stolen while he and his wife had hosted a charity benefit event six months earlier.

When police fail to find the thief and there’s no sign of the painting on the black market, Marty resorts to a private investigator to find the forger and retrieve his lost masterpiece. And so begins a decades-long obsession.

The culprit is not a professional forger but an impoverished graduate student Ellie Shipley who goes to extraordinary lengths to understand the techniques of the Dutch masters she studies. In her tiny Brooklyn apartment she boils rabbit pelts to make glue and pulls  apart old canvases so she can build them up a layer at a time and so understand the process of creation. When approached by a secretive art dealer, she doesn’t see her copy as a forgery but as a tribute to the legacy of Sara de Vos.

She has no interest in the composition from ten or twenty feet—that will come later. What she wants is topography, the impasto, the furrows where sable hairs were dragged into tiny painted crests to catch the light. Or the stray line of charcoal or chalk, glimpsed beneath a glaze that’s three hundred years old. She’s been known to take a safety pin and test the porosity of the paint and then bring the point to her tongue. Since old-world grounds contain gesso, glue, and something edible—honey, milk, cheese—the Golden Age has a distinctively sweet or curdled taste.

The past catches up with her in 2000 when, as an internationally renowned art historian, and curator of a gallery in New South Wales, Australia, she anxiously prepares for a show devoted to works by female painters of the Dutch Golden Age. Two identical paintings are on their way to the gallery:  the original Sara de Vos  “At the Edge of a Wood,” and the forged version painted by Shipley nearly 50 years earlier. Ellie understandably  “feels certain this is the beginning of how it all ends”.

Between these two threads is a narrative set 300 years earlier in Amsterdam which reveals the life of Sara de Vos and the grief that compelled her to paint At the Edge of the Wood.  Sara, widowed, bankrupt and mourning the death of her only child from the Plague, can find no relief in painting the tulips that her clients demand. Only in painting rural landscapes that are surreal allegories of loss can she find the strength to carry on.

The appeal of Smith’s book is the way he weaves three alternating timelines and locations to show how one painting exerts a powerful influence on three people across the centuries and across the world. One moment we’re in 1950s New York jazz clubs tracing de Groot’s attempts to track down the forger; the next we’re in mid seventeenth-century Holland as Sara de Vos struggles to regain her position in the all-powerful Guild and finally in Sydney in 2000 as forger and victim come face to face.

The Dutch sections were captivating. Smith spins an aura of melancholy around de Vos and tantalises us at the beginning of the book with a description of her supposed last work.

A winter scene at twilight. The girl stands in the foreground against a silver birch, a pale hand pressed to its bark, staring out at the skaters on the frozen river. . . . Her eyes are fixed on some distant point — but is it dread or the strange halo of winter twilight that pins her in place? She seems unable, or unwilling, to reach the frozen riverbank.

I was ready to believe not only did Sara de Vos exist, but so did her painting. Sadly both are as much an invention as Ellie Shipley’s forgery.  Although women were admitted to the Guild of Saint Luke  (without membership no painter could have sold their work) Sara de Vos herself never existed. She is a composite created from the ” biographical details of several women’s lives of the Dutch Golden Age” Dominic Smith found while researching through the Guild’s records, as he explained in an article for The Paris Review

Such detailed research gives the novel its feeling of authenticity but Smith is too canny a writer to let his knowledge of seventeenth-century painting techniques or the techniques of forgers, drag down the impetus of the narrative. Just as astutely he navigates between the mystery element and the history, delivering a multi-layered narrative that I found totally engrossing.

Footnotes

About the author: Dominic Smith is an Australian who has lived for much of his life in Texas. He has garnered several awards for his fiction.  His debut novel, The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre, was a Barnes & Noble Discover New Writers Book, and received the Turner Prize for First Fiction from the Texas Institute of Letters. The Last Painting of Sara de Vos was a New York Times Bestseller and a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice.

Why I read this book: I love books about painting (Michael Frayn’s Headlong is a favourite) but when you bring in Amsterdam, one of the loveliest cities in Europe, it was hard to resist. Even harder when I read some the reviews of other bloggers including Lisa at ANZLitLovers (see review here) and found no-one had a bad word to say about this book.

Postscript: since publishing this post I’ve also discovered that Kim has reviewed the book. Here is her review

Vertigo by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac #bookreviews

VertigoI’ve watched the Alfred Hitchcock film Vertigo several times but never realised that this tale of mental disturbance and obsession was based on a French novel called D’Entre les Morts (translated into English as From Among the Dead). 

The plot of the film is essentially the same as that of the novel though the characters’ names are different and Hitchcock makes far more about the vertigo suffered by the protagonist. Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac set From Among the Dead in Paris and Marseilles but Hitchcock went for San Franscisco, presumably because its relative proximity to Hollywood made it more economical.

More significantly the historical context is eradicated from the film version.  From Among the Dead is set against a background of World War 2 and the ugliness of war deepens the sense of displacement created by the plot. The book opens in a period called ‘the phoney war’ when people in France wait uneasily for the hostilities that seem inevitable.  Some in France, like the industrialist Paul Gevigné, stand to profit from the war but others, like his old university friend Roger Flavières feel they are living on the edge of an abyss. “The future was … a blank. Nothing had any real meaning except the spring leaves in the sunshine – and love.”

The pair haven’t seen each other for several years but Gevigné, now a prosperous shipbuilder, tracks down his old friend because he needs help. His wife Madeleine is behaving strangely, experiencing attacks which leave her in a frozen, trance-like state . She denies going out in the afternoons but Gévigne has evidence to the contrary. Is she lying (and if so, for what purpose) or is she suffering a mental disturbance affecting her memory? Doctors can’t find anything wrong with her but Gevigné isn’t convinced. Adding to his anxiety is the fact Madeleine’s great-grandmother, Pauline Lagerlac, suffered from a similar mysterious affliction and committed suicide when she was twenty-five, coincidentally Madeleine’s age now. His old friend Paul used to be a police detective so who better to help him by following Madeleine and solving the mystery?

Flavières is initially reluctant to help. But after just one sighting of Madeleine he’s dazzled. This is a woman whose beauty is as mysterious as that of the Mona Lisa, but with a sadness that he finds endearing.  “It was no longer a question of watching her, but of helping her, protecting her,”  he reflects after seeing her at the theatre one night. And so his fate is sealed. As he trails her through the streets of Paris, Flavières — who has never before been in love — becomes obsessed by his friend’s wife.

He was making a fool of himself of course. Torturing himself into the bargain, living in a constant tumult of painful impressions. Never mind! Beneath that tumult was a peace and a plenitude of joy such as he had never known. It swallowed up the frustrations of recent years, the fears, the regrets.

His delight is short-lived. On an excursion into the countryside, Madeleine throws herself off the tower of a church and dies. Her death brings part one of the book to an end, coinciding with the fall of France to the Nazi invaders.

Flash forward four years. The war is over and people in France are picking up the pieces of their lives. Paul Gevigné is dead and Roger Flavières is an alcoholic, tormented by the loss of Madeleine and his guilt that he couldn’t save her. His doctors tell him that for his own sanity he should get out of Paris.  On his last night in the city he goes to the cinema and sees in a newsreel a girl who closely resembles Madeleine.

He persues her, courts her and takes her as his mistress but the relationship goes downhill because Flavières tries to remake her in the image of the dead woman, dictating what she wears and the style of her hair. Believing his mistress is really a reincarnation of his lost love, his hold on reality becomes ever more fragile.  Flavières comes across as a bully at this stage, never letting up for moment in his determination to force his mistress to confess that yes, she is Madeleine.

Vertigo is a dark and stylish tale about a man in torment. A man who is destroyed by his infatuation for a woman and his search for the truth. Although we sense from the outset that things are not going to turn out well for Flavières, that feeling of inevitability doesn’t spoil the enjoyment of the novel.  The first part is a little on the slow slide but the tension ratchets up significantly in the second part, coming to a satisfying twist in the final pages. But by then it is too late for Flavières. His life is in ruins.

Footnotes

D’Entre les Morts was published in 1954. Apparently Boileau and Narcejac wanted to move away from the conventions of Golden Age mysteries. They wanted to turn victims into conspirators and protagonists into perpetrators and operated to a rule that “the protagonist can never wake up from their nightmare”. The English version came out in 1956 and the film in 1958.

In 2015 Pushkin came out with a new edition as part of PUSHKIN VERTIGO, their new imprint for crime classics from around the world, focusing on works written between the 1920s and 1970s.

 

 

From African crime to games of English politics

It’s time for another Six Degrees of Separation. This month we begin in Botswana and the colourful detective Mma Precious Ramotswe (isn’t that a delicious name?) created by Alexander McCall Smith for his No.1 Ladies Detective Agency series. I did enjoy the book but never went on to read any of the later titles, nor watch the TV adaptation.

Crime and Africa provide me with my first link. There’s even a direct connection to book 2 in the chain because on the back of my copy of Wife of the Gods by Kwei Quartery is a comment from The Booklist  that the novel will be relished by fans of Alexander McCall Smith’s Number 1 Ladies Detective Agency series.

Wife

Actually Quartery’s novel is much darker than McCall Smith’s because in order to solve the  murder of a young female medical student, the investigating detective has to contend with a veil of secrecy about a practice which sees young girls offered as trokosi (or Wives of the Gods) to fetish priests. He finds important clues in the Adinkra symbols that are used to decorate the cloth worn as wraps. Never having heard of these symbols I spent an enjoyable hour searching the web for images to explain their symbolism.

Lives of Others

The book in my next link also dealt with fashion accessories, but this time in the form of the jewellery worn by Indian brides. The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee blends family saga and political turbulence in India during the second half of the 1960s. For light relief we get the squabbling members of the Ghosh family and their petty jealousies over gifts of saris and wedding jewellery. Looking at some images of young brides dressed in jewel-encrusted saris and double their body weight in gold, I remembered a visit to the royal jewellery collection at the Kremlin. What the Tsarinas had to wear for their coronation was so phenomenally heavy I couldn’t imagine how they managed to stand let alone walk.

The moonstone

A gift of jewellery from India is the catalyst for the plot of the next book in my chain. The large diamond in Wilkie Collins’ novel The Moonstone was stolen by a British army officer and bequeathed to his niece Rachel Verinder on her eighteenth birthday. But on the night of her party it goes missing, believed stolen, an event which results in unhappiness, turmoil and ill fortune for her and the cousin who had hoped to be her husband.

jewel-in-crown

Jewels+India+turmoil= The Jewel in the Crown by Paul Scott. This is the first part in his Raj Quartet collection about the dying days of the British in India and one of my favourite novels of all time. You can see why it has such a special place in my affection by reading the ‘Books that Built the Blogger’ post I wrote for Cathy at 746books.com (here’s the link if you’re interested.)

Katherine of Aragon

The link to book number 5 in my chain may be a bit obvious but I’m going there anyway. Katherine of Aragon by Alison Weir is the first in her series about the women who wore the crown of a Queen of England by virtue of their marriage to King Henry VIII. Some managed to hold onto it for a few years, others lost their head over it which just proves the validity of that line from Shakespeare’s Henry 1V part 2 ‘Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown

In Alison Weir’s novel we first meet Katherine as a young and beautiful bride to be who has left Spain to marry the heir to the English throne, Prince Arthur. When he dies she marries his brother Henry and gets to be queen. Weir shows Katherine as more than a match for Henry’s intellect and energy but fate, and Henry’s roving eye, means she ends up divorced and a lonely figure banished to draughty manor houses well away from the court.

Wolf_Hall_cover

Katherine in her role as abandoned wife is a key figure in my final book. Hilary Mantel’s dazzling novel Wolf Hall  vividly recreates the life of the man the former queen holds responsible for her demise: Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s chief advisor. Cromwell is usually depicted in fiction as a shrewd, manipulative and cold figure who will go to any lengths in his master’s service. Mantel turns the traditional portrait on its head and shows Cromwell also as a loving husband and caring father. It’s an extraordinary work of historical fiction; lyrical yet tightly written, bursting with scenes and images that linger in the mind. Quite simply, the most inventive and thrilling historical novel I’ve ever read (apart of course from Mantel’s follow up Bring Up the Bodies).

And so we’ve reached the end of this chain. We’ve travelled from Africa via India to England, from crime and sensational fiction to historical fiction. Is there a connection between our starting book and the one with which I ended? Maybe it’s stretching a point to call the way Katherine was treated as a crime, but she was certainly an innocent victim in a political game.

If you want to play along with Six Degrees of Separation head to Books Are My Favourite and Best where Kate sets us off with a new book each month.  As always all the books I’ve included are ones I have read though not necessarily reviewed.

2018: the Year of Naked Reading begins

“If you really want to be a good presenter, you need to practice speaking naked.”

Reactions in the room varied. A few people laughed nervously. Others shuffled in their seats. Some people looked at each other with that ‘did I hear that right??’ look. They were not quite saying it out loud but clearly more than one member of my team thought I’d gone crazy. I wanted them to stand in front of a room of people and deliver a presentation while not wearing any clothes????

Not what I meant at all. By speaking naked what I meant was they needed to know how to address a group without the aid of Powerpoint slides. They were a crutch upon which people (and not just my team members) relied on far too often.

What does this all have to do with reading you are by now no doubt pondering.

Giorgione_-_Sleeping_Venus

Sleeping Venus by Giorgione, c. 1510 CreativeCommons Licence via Wikipedia

By reading naked I do not mean lying about on my chaise longue or languishing in a sheltered bower as if I were in a Rubens painting.

Nope. I mean reading without the aid of reading lists, prompts and challenges.

Let me rewind a little to explain.

A few weeks ago, as is traditional at this time of the year, I began to think about my 2018 reading goals. What did I want to accomplish in the next 12 months?

I had lots of ideas of my own initially.

One goal could be to finish my Classics Club list. Another to read x number of novels by authors in countries other than UK and USA. Or how about reading x number of novels in translation.

There was equally no shortage of ideas coming through on my reader feed. HeavenAli’s #ReadingMuriel2018 readalong of Muriel Spark was enticing.  Simon from Stuckinabook had an even bigger challenge to offer with his Century of Reading project. No doubt about it that the Nonfiction Reading Challenge hosted by Katie at Doing Dewey would give me a much needed nudge to read all the non-fiction books languishing on my bookshelves. And then later in the year there would be 20BooksofSummer, Reading Ireland Month; Japanese Lit Challenge, German Lit month etc etc etc.

But I kept pontificating. Changing my mind. Deciding on a goal one day and then scrubbing it out the next. I offloaded on my nearest and dearest expecting/hoping for sympathy. Not one jot came my way. Instead I got a challenge: why was it so critical for me to have a goal at all? Hadn’t I left all that behind me when I stopped working? Who would care anyway?

It took a few days for that little seed to germinate. But germinate and grow it did. Maybe I could take a gap year from goals and challenges and targets?. Could 2018 be a year of free wheeling reading; reading whatever I felt like at that particular moment?

The more I thought about it the more I warmed to the idea. Since I started blogging I’ve had projects and targets and challenges to guide my reading – and very few of them were accomplished successfully. Some people thrive on goals and objectives and do brilliantly at keeping to resolutions. In most areas of my life these work well for me too. But when it comes to reading I’m a dud. Fact is, I’ve realised, that I enjoy making lists of books to read but the minute the list is finalised, I go off the idea of reading the books I’ve chosen. A list makes me feel hemmed in somewhat.

I am therefore declaring 2018 to be the Year of Naked Reading.

I will keep the ongoing projects I’ve been working on for a few years now like the Booker Prize Project (there is no way I am abandoning that right at the last moment) or my World Literature project. I’m also going to start a new one – the Year of my Life reading project initiated by Cafe Society. But I won’t use those projects to drive my reading.  Nor When I am ready for the next book I’ll just look around the book shelves and pick out what takes my fancy. With some 220 plus books I own but haven’t read, I will have plenty of choice. I’m going to try and restrain myself so I don’t purchase zillions of new books but won’t be setting any targets or imposing numeric constraints.

So here’s to the beginning of a rudderless, free wheeling 2018.

Anyone care to join me??

Reykjavík Nights by Arnaldur Indridason #bookreviews

Reykyavik Nights by Arnaldur Indridason; Nordic Noir fiction

Sometimes the brain just craves crime. Not your cosy, locked room in a vicarage kind of crime fiction. But equally not the type that comes oozing with blood  and mangled bodies.  Arnaldur Indridason’s Reykjavík Nights fitted the bill perfectly being neither too slight nor too complex but offering a darkish mood and some bleak settings as you’d expect from Nordic Noir.

This is the second Indiridason novel I’ve read  from his Inspector Erlendur series which began in English translation in 2000 with Jar City.  Reykjavík Nights is actually a prequel, one of a “Young Erlendur” series that features Erlendur in the days when he was a humble cop on the beat in Reykjavík and is yet to join the hallowed ranks of the detective branch of the Icelandic police force.

Reykjavík Nights sees him just settling into the police force, working the night shift with two law students. His nights are full of robberies, road accidents, drunks and fights but his mind is pre-occupied by the death a year earlier of a homeless alcoholic called Hannibal.  Erlendur knew something of the man’s life having taken pity on him when he found him slumped in public space in the depths of winter.

Now Hannibal was dead. Found drowned near some old peat pits and close to his last known abode inside a heating pipeline. Was it an accident as the police report seemed to suggest? No-one seems particularly to care: he was just a loner and a drunk; one of many on the streets of the city. No-one that is except Erlendur who wants to get at the truth before Hannibal’s death becomes another cold case consigned to the bottom of the pile. He conducts his own investigation, entering the world of people on the fringe of society, the homeless and the lost who congregate in the city’s squares and parks.

As he proceeds he becomes convinced there is a link between Hannibal’s death and the disappearance of a young married woman called Oddny. She’d gone for a night out at a local club but never made it home.  Determination, thoroughness and an ability to sift truth from lies help him solve the case but not before Indridason has taken us down a few blind alleys.

As a prequel, Reykjavík Nights does a good job of introducing aspects of Erlendur’s nature which play out strongly in the later novel I read, Silence of the Grave. The older Erlunder is rather morose, a solitary figure who has difficulty forming relationships but also capable of compassion. In Reykjavík Nights he walks the streets of the city, dropping into graveyards for “peace and solace” ; an observer rather than a participant, but with a gift for getting people to talk to him. Not for him are “relentlessly hearty people” because “such forced jollity could quickly become oppressive”.

Instead he prefers to spends his free time at home listening to jazz or reading. Erlunder has been a collector of books since his teenage years, regularly visiting antiquarian bookshops in search of true stories “about human suffering in shipwrecks, avalanches or on the old roads that crossed the Icelandic wilderness.” He has a girlfriend – (later to become his wife) but it is clear that he is reluctant to commit to a deeper relationship with her until fate intervenes and forces his hand.

 

Mirroring Erlunder’s gloomy mood is the bleakness of the city where he works. For much of the novel, Reykjavík enjoys summer sunshine but as Erlunder reflects, there is another side to the city:

….so strangely sunny and bright, yet in another sense so dark and desperate. Night after night he and his fellow officers patrolled the city in the lumbering police van, witnessing human dramas that were hidden from others. Some the night provoked and seduced; other, it wounded and terrified.

The story line edges on being pedestrian; progressing slowly and methodically without the aid of sudden revelations. But the plot wasn’t really my main interest in this book. I enjoyed it more as a character study of a young, somewhat idealist policeman who has a strong sense of what is right and wrong. For people who have enjoyed the series featuring the mature Erlunder, this is a good chance to take a step back and understand how he came to be the morose, lone 50-something detective with a broken marriage and drug-addicted daughter of the later novels.

Footnotes

The book: After eleven novels featuring the mature Detective Arnaldur, Indiridason began a new series that delve into the detective’s early, formative yearsReykjavík Nights translated into English in 2014 is the second of two novels focused on the young Erlunder (the first is The Great Match which is set even before Erlunder joins the police force). My copy of Reykjavík Nights  was translated  from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb.

The author:  Arnaldur Indridason worked as a journalist, freelance writer and film critic before publishing his first novel Sons of Dust (Synir duftsins) in 1997, putting him on the path to becoming one of his country’s best known writers.  At one point, his novels were seven of the top ten books at the Reykjavik City Library. His novels have been published in 26 countries. His first book to be published in English was Jar City (aka Tainted Blood).

Why I read this book: it was recommended by Mary Whipple who blogs at marywhipplereviews

Arnaldur Indridason

 

Reading Bingo 2017

 

I’ve come across Reading Bingo several times over the years since I started this blog but never joined in because it seemed the idea was to commit to reading books that fitted the squares. I know from experience I am hopeless at reading to order. But this year I’ve seen a few bloggers  Marina at Finding Time to Write , Cleo at CleopatraLovesBooks   and Susan at ALifeinBooks fill in the squares in retrospect first. Since I am too stuffed with Christmas pudding to move too far from the sofa it seemed a fun way to look back on the year and see how well I could match my books read with the 2017 bingo card. I’ve done way better than I expected with just two blank squares…

Book bingo 2017

A Book with More Than 500 Pages –  weighing in with more than 600 pages is the Booker-award winning Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth

A Forgotten Classic  – Gerard Reve’s The Evenings has been called a masterpiece of Dutch literature (I’m not convinced about that). Published in Amsterdam in 1946 it took 60 years before an English language version became available. 

A Book That Became a Movie –   You may not have heard of the book Vertigo by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac  but I’m confident you’ve heard, and may have watched the version by Alfred Hitchcock.

A Book Published This Year – Larkinland by Jonathan Tulloch brilliantly captures the atmosphere of Hull in UK at the time when the poet Phillip Larkin was head of its university library. 

Reservoir 13A Book with a Number in the Title – one of the best two novels I have read all year is Jon McGregor’s superbly constructed Reservoir 13, A contender for the Booker Prize in 2017, it sadly lost out in the final round. 

A Book Written by Someone Under Thirty –   I don’t know Alys Conran’s exact age (it would have been impertinent to ask her when I met her at the Wales Book Awards) but I’m confident she is younger than I am so that’s enough for me to justify including her hear with her multi award-winning debut novel  Pigeon.

A Book with Non-Human Characters –  Limited options here since I dislike books of this kind. The nearest I can get is Strangers by Taichi Yamada which features ghosts. 

A Funny Book –   HagSeed by Margaret Atwood is a touching and imaginative retelling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. There are some genuinely funny scenes set in a prison where the inmates become the cast members and have to decide what swear words will be acceptable.

A Book By A Female Author:  The most extraordinary novel I read all year was  The Vegetarian by the South Korean author Han Kang. It’s a short novel but deals with some big issues such as the clash between personal desire and society’s expectations.

A Book with a Mystery –   an easy one this since the word mystery appears in the title.  The Hog’s Back Mystery by Freeman Wills Crofts, comes from the Golden Age of Crime and is part of the British Library Classic Crime series. A meticulously plotted murder mystery that will test your powers of memory and logic.

A Book with a One-word title –  Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi won multiple awards and a six figure advance from a publisher (good going for a debut author). I enjoyed many elements but overall felt it could have been an even better novel.

A Book of Short Stories – Failed on this one. I have several collections of short stories but seldom get around to reading them. I did start one collection but only read three stories. 

Free square –   My Antonia by Willa Cather, a classic of a farming community set in Nebraska. It was so beautifully written I’m keen to read more by Cather. 

A Book Set on a Different Continent – Even though I haven’t read as many novels in translation as I would have liked this year, I did read a few set in Australasia. Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey was one I highly enjoyed. 

A Non-fiction Book – The Good Women of China by Xinran relates the real life stories of women who live within the constraints of a society that doesn’t value women. All the stories were featured on her radio programme.

The First Book by a Favourite Author – Fail again. Although there were a number of authors I read this year whose work I have enjoyed in the past (John Banville, Anthony Trollope, Margaret Atwood for example) none of the books were their first published works.  

A Book You Heard About Online – I can’t believe it took me so long to discover We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson but it was only through other bloggers that this came to my attention. 

A Bestselling Book –   Published in 1930, Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome, may well pre-date best seller lists so I can’t tell you how many copies of this have been purchased. But it’s never been out of print and has spawned many tv and screen adaptations including one in 2016 so on the basis of its enduring popularity I’m classing it as a best-seller.

A Book Based on a True Story – Off to Philadelphia in the Morning by Jack Jones is a fictionalised account of the life of Joseph Parry, one of the most famous composers to hail from Wales. Born into the extreme poverty of the iron and coal-mining town of Merthyr Tydfil he moved to Philadelphia with his parents at a young age. On his return to Wales he became the first person from Wales to gain a Doctorate in Music from Cambridge University. 

A Book at the Bottom of Your TBR Pile – as a literature student I dipped into A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf regularly but never read the whole essay. I corrected that ommission this year. You could say I left it a bit late after 37 years but at least I got to it …

A Book your Friend Loves –  I read By the Pricking of my Thumbs by Agatha Christie as part of the #1968club hosted by Simon of Stuck in a Book and Karen at kaggsysbookishramblings. My sister, who is a Christie fan, loved it more than I did. 

A Book that Scares You – Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel isn’t a scary book in station eleventhe sense it is populated by aliens or things that hide in the woodshed. But it did send shivers down my spine with its premise that the world is hit by flu pandemic so virulent its victims die within 48 hours. In a few short weeks it claims the lives of 99.99 per cent of the world’s population. What made me nervous was that the survivors find a lot of the objects and technologies they had felt essential to their lives (like mobile phones) prove useless in this new world. I started to worry that I don’t have any of the skills that would help me survive.  

A Book that is More Than 10 Years Old –  What a joy it was to read Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier. Yes it was sensational and a romp of a story but du Maurier also managed to underpin this with a more thoughtful theme about the female situation. 

snow sisters

The Second Book in a Series –  Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon is a prequel to his best seller Shadow of the Wind but was actually his second to be published. It’s more patchy in quality than Shadow of the Wind but is still a fast moving adventure story that can be enjoyed just for its setting in Barcelona.

A Book with a Blue Cover –   Snow Sisters by Carol Lovekin. The story is complex (multiple narrators and timelines) but is handled well and is strong on atmosphere. The cover is gorgeous. 

 

If you haven’t come across Reading Bingo before, do give it a go. You might be as surprised as I was. And do take a look at the other bloggers who have participated so far this year:

Marina at Finding Time to Write

Emma at Book Around the Corner

Cleo at CleopatraLovesBooks 

Merry Christmas everyone

What a difference a year has made. Last year I was anxiously awaiting surgery to deal with cancer and couldn’t face the idea of a family get together. I chose to,spend Christmas very quietly at home with my husband, the first time in almost 35  years of marriage we hadn’t gone to our family or hosted them at our place.

One year later the surgery is over, the cancer has gone and I’m bouncing back. Time for me to play host again and to suffer all the anxieties that go with that. Should I put the turkey in a brine bath or cook it sitting on a base of vegetables?  How do you get sprouts to taste of anything other than sulphur (you can tell I am not a lover). What are the rules of Black Jack again? Is it possible for six people to play Scrabble for an hour without an argument about what constitutes a proper noun?

Whether you are spending Christmas in your own home or with friends and family, marking the festive season with a BBQ on the beach or in front of a cosy fire, I hope you have a wonderful time. And may your tree be laden with bookish goodies….

 

Celebrate-2017

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

HomegoingWhen Yaa Gyasi published her debut novel Homegoing, she collected an astounding array of awards and accolades.

Homegoing won the NBCC’s John Leonard First Book Prize and NPR’s Debut Novel of the Year; was named a New York Times 2016 Notable Book and one of Time‘s Top 10 Novels of 2016. Oprah picked it as one of her 10 Favourite Books of 2016. With all those commendations I was expecting a very special novel.

Homegoing was certainly an ambitious undertaking, tracing multiple generations of descendants across two continents and four centuries. Holding the narrative together is the issue of slavery which casts its shadow over not just those individuals who are captured but also those who are responsible for the trafficking of humans.  It’s an issue that sadly still resonates in the 21st century. Only last week the UK’s Guardian newspaper reported that nine African and Asian men had been taken into safety, suspected of being the victims of slavery aboard British scallop trawlers.

Yaa Gyasi’s portrayal of the effects of fate and the physical and mental scars that last through the generations, is breathtaking in its scope. But I still couldn’t help feel disappointed by the book overall.

The main problem is actually the broad scope of Homegoing.  It opens in a village on the Gold Coast (we know the area today as Ghana), home to the Asante tribe and its powerful leader “Big Man”. When a British slave trader takes a fancy to his beautiful daughter  Effia Otcher, Big Man sees an opportunity to cement relationships with the British rulers and get one up on the rival Fante tribe. Effia goes to live in a fort overlooking the sea. Under the castle, the dungeons are stuffed with slaves awaiting transit to Americas and the Caribbean.  Unknown to Effia, among them is her older half-sister Esi Asare, captured during a raid on her own village. Effia stays behind in Africa, protected as the wife of a British official while Esi, once her father’s darling, is transported to America.

Each chapter of the novel is narrated from the perspective of a descendant of either Effia or Esi, one representative for each generation, via chapters that alternate the two bloodlines alternate right up to the 21st century.

And there you have the crux of my difficulties with this novel.  Every chapter starts in a new location and time and introduces us to a completely new set of people with only a few references connecting one generation’s narrative to its predecessor.  Gyasi does a superb job of creating characters that resonate but it seemed that no sooner had I warmed to this individual and picked up the threads of the history of their family, the ongoing rivalry between Asante and Fante tribes and subsequently the fight for freedom and equality among the enslaved in the USA, then it was onto the next chapter. I appreciated Gyasi wanted to give a panoramic perspective but it meant she had little time to develop any theme in depth. She touches on ideas but then glances away before they really have time to mature or for her to say anything remarkably new. Reading the book made me feel I was experiencing a continuous supply of appetisers instead of a full meal of a novel

To overcome the problem of such a discontinuous narrative and avoid Homegoing becoming more of a series of linked stories than a novel, Gyasi relies heavy on recurring symbols like the stone pendant the sister’s mother gives to each girl. Effia’s pendant is passed from generation to generation but Esi’s stone is dropped into the filth and excrement of the castle dungeon into which she is thrown upon her capture and is never recovered, a metaphor for the  way slavery removes the individual’s connection to their past and robs them of their heritage.

I realise I am sounding very negative about this novel which is unfortunate and misleading. I did enjoy the book, most particularly because some of the characterisation was excellent.  I also gained new insights about the ways in which tribal conflict played a significant role in facilitating the capture of individuals to feed the slave trade. Gyasi more than convinced me that she’s a talented author but I’m equally confident this is not the best she is capable of producing. I’m going to watch with interest what she does next.

Footnotes

About the author: Yaa Gyasi was born in Ghana but moved with her parents to the United States when she was two years old so that her father could complete his PhD studies.  Homegoing was inspired by a 2009 trip to Ghana, after completing her sophomore year at Stanford, her  first trip to the country of her birth since leaving the country as an infant. 

About the novel:  Gyasi started to write Homegoing shortly after graduating from Stanford, when she worked at a startup company in San Francisco.  She continued working on it while studying for her MFA at Iowa university. It took Gyasi six years to write the novel. She received several offers from publishers but ultimately went with Knopf who gave her a seven-figure advance.

Why I read this book: I asked for this book as a Christmas present two years ago having heard so much about it but then didn’t get around to reading it until I joined a new book club this month which had chosen it for their December meeting.

A year in first lines: 2017

 

Many bloggers like to mark the end of a year with a look back over the last 12 months. I’ve not done this before but some recent posts from Lisa at ANZLitLovers and Sue at WhisperingGums alerted me to an interesting variation on the end-of-year meme.

This involves taking the first line of each month’s post in the past year to see what light it shines on the blogging year in general.

The ‘rule’ is to use the first sentence in the first post of each month.

I’ve had to bend this rule a little because I discovered that my first post was often a meme or in the Snapshot category. This is where I try to capture what I’m reading on the first day of the month, what I plan to read next and the state of my unread books collection (aka the TBR). Just using those posts for this exercise wouldn’t make for very interesting reading.

So I adopted my own rule where I selected the first substantive post of each month.

This is how the year worked out for me.

January 2017

Post Title: The Murder of Halland by Pia Juul

By the time they’ve reached the end of the novel, most readers of crime fiction expect to find the author has answered the key questions: who , committed the crime, how and why.

The Murder of Halland was published by Pereine Press in 2012 as part The Small Epic series. Translated from the Danish original by Martin Aitken.

February 2017

Post Title: Dominion by C. J Sansom

C.J Sansom took a gamble with his political thriller Dominion in which he imagines a world where, having failed to defeat the Nazi regime, Great Britain becomes one of Germany’s subject territories.

March 2017

Post Title: The Greatest Novels from Wales? #WritingWales

A few years ago, the Wales Arts Review magazine asked readers: Which is the Greatest Welsh Novel?

April 2017

Post Title: Tomorrow by Graham Swift

Some protagonists are designed to be annoying.  Some simply are that way.  But no matter how annoying, frustrating or distasteful they can still be fascinating and memorable for readers.

May 2017

Post Title: The Cheltenham Square Murders by John Bude

The town of Cheltenham has a reputation for being the rather genteel, upmarket part of Gloucestershire.

June 2017

Post Title: My Ántonia by Willa Cather

It’s taken me long enough but the experience of reading Willa Cather’s My Ántonia was well worth the wait.

July 2017 

Post Title: A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

If you’d asked me a few weeks ago whether I’d be likely to enjoy a novel about everything from Zen and the meaning of time to the Japanese tsunami and environmental degradation, I’d probably have said no way.

August 2017

Post Title: Life and Times of Michael K by J.M. Coetzee

I approached J. M Coetzee’s Booker Prize winning novella The Life & Times of Michael K hoping against hope it would be easier to penetrate than the last novel I read by him: The Schooldays of Jesus

September 2017

Post Title: Between the lines: Jonathan Tulloch on Larkinland

Last week I posted my review of Larkinland a 2017 novel by Jonathan Tulloch which evokes the atmosphere of Hull as discovered by the poet Phillip Larkin.

October 2017

Post Title: Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor

Of all the books long-listed for the 2017 Man Booker prize, Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor was the one I most wanted to read.

November 2017 

Post Title: Chocky by John Wyndham #1968 club

Did you have an imaginary friend when you were a child? Apparently I did for a few months when I was about four years old.

December 2017

Post Title: Hag Seed by Margaret Atwood

I usually ignore reinterpretations and retellings of classic novels but the premise of Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed was so enticing I set aside my normal cynicism.

What does this tell me about my blogging year?

  • It reflects accurately that I’m a butterfly reader. I flit around a lot between classics (My Ántonia and Chocky), Booker prize winners  and contenders (Life and Times of Michael X  and A Tale for the Time Being) with a smattering of crime (Cheltenham Square Murders) and translated fiction (Murder of Halland).
  • Most of my posts are either reviews or memes (I do the Six Degrees of Separation and Top Ten Tuesday memes). The Between the Lines post in September is a new type of content for me this year where I do a Q&A with an author.
  • I’ve clearly not made much progress with two of my long term challenges (Classics Club and Literature around the World) since there were very few posts on books in those categories.
  • My new interest in fiction by authors and publishers in Wales is beginning to come through with three of the posts reflecting that topic.
  • I’ve read very very little new fiction this year.Reservoir 13 was published this year as was Larkinland. It’s not quite as dire as this set of first lines suggests but it doesn’t surprise me considering that one of my goals for 2017 was to read more of the books I already own rather than buy yet more.
  • My intro sentences need a bit of jazzing up. I know they are taken out of context which doesn’t help but they do sound rather dull to me.

Although the idea, which originated with The Indextrious Reader., is to use this exercise to reflect on the past year I’ve found it’s also been helpful in giving me some ideas for next year. I’d like to do more Between the Lines interviews for example. I think my interest in Top Ten Tuesday has fizzled out and will come to a dead end next year. I’ve already skipped many week’s prompts because I found the topic wasn’t that interesting. It was fun for a while but I’m feel I’m getting list fatique. But all that is still in the future since 2017 isn’t yet over…

If you are minded to play along with the Year in First Lines, but want some further inspiration take a look at what some of the other participants have published.

https://whisperinggums.com/2017/12/10/a-year-in-first-lines2017/https://anzlitlovers.com/2017/12/10/a-year-in-first-lines-2017/https://beyondedenrock.com/2017/12/08/a-year-in-first-lines-2/

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