Author Archives: BookerTalk

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng #bookreview

little-firesLittle Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng explores the nature of motherhood and the secrets that lie bubbling beneath the veneer of an ultra perfect American community.

Shaker Heights in Ohio is a place where everything is planned, organised and controlled. Nothing is left to chance; not the the colour of the doors into each house or where household rubbish must be left for collection.

Across the country, other communities might clash and squabble but Shaker Heights prides itself on being a community that is “unified and beautiful”: where householders regularly weed their gardens and parents engage in wholesome activities like making cookies.

It’s a picture perfect settlement operating on an underlying philosophy that when everything is planned, “the unseemly, the unpleasant and the disastrous” can be avoided.

Elena and Bill Richardson are typical of the inhabitants of Shaker Heights: successful, wealthy and white. She’s a journalist with the local newspaper. He’s a lawyer. They like to do their bit for the less fortunate members of society, regularly attending local fund raising events and donating to UNICEF. They plan that their four children will become equally respectable and successful.

Their complacency is disrupted when Mrs Richardson rents an apartment to Mia Warren, a single mother and her 15-year-old daughter, Pearl. They’re a nomadic pair, having travelled from state to state with all their possessions stuffed into a VW Rabbit. The lives of the Warrens and the Richardsons begin to coalesce. Friendships are born,  confidences shared and affiliations formed.

Interesting enough but it’s not until Ng introduces a moral dilemma  that the book really take off. The spark is a custody battle over a Chinese baby. Friends of Mrs Richardson want to adopt her but the girl’s birth mother wants her back. Who has the greater right to consider herself the true mother.

It came, over and over, down to this. What made someone a mother? Was it biology alone, or was it love?

As the community takes sides on this question, two other moral quandaries regarding a baby come to light. In one, a surrogate mother is so attached to the unborn child she feels unable to go through with the agreement. The other shows a teenager afraid her university education and her whole future will be jeopardised if she doesn’t have an abortion. In all three cases the desires of biological mothers are counterpoised with the claims of potential parents whose wealth could provide the child with greater opportunities in life. The question is posed: should the child’s or the mother’s interest prevail?

The  story occasionally labours under the weight of this question but the characterisation more than compensates for this weakness. The two matriarchs in particular are vividly drawn. Mia is an interesting character whose  highly imaginative photographs are collectors items but she works as a cleaner to make ends meet.

The real hit of this novel for me however was Mrs Richardson (she is hardly ever referred to by her given name  “Elena”). She comes across as a control freak,  a woman so convinced her friend should win the custody battle that she is willing to act unethically and put another friendship in jeopardy. And yet Ng shows beneath her cold exterior is a woman who suppressed her dreams and aspirations believing a life of controlled domesticity was the way to happiness.

… she had learned that passion, like fire, was a dangerous thing. It so easily went out of control. … Better to control that spark and pass it carefully from one generation to the next, like an Olympic torch. Or perhaps to tend it carefully like an eternal flame: a reminder of light and goodness that would never — could never —set anything ablaze.

Little Fires Everywhere was both an engrossing and a frustrating read. It begins with a fire that engulfs the Richardson house. The youngest daughter,  Doc Marten-wearing, troubled teen Izzy, is the main suspect, but it soon becomes clear that the inferno has been deliberately caused with, as the firefighters put it, “multiple points of origin”. The novel then tracks back in time to look at the flash points that led up to the conflagration.

At the same time, the pace and structure of the story keep us turning the pages, eager to find out why the fires were set, who will get custody of the baby, what secrets are buried in Mia’s past and whether their uncovering will lead to catastrophe.

I enjoyed watching how Ng wove together the different plot lines, keeping us in suspense about the identity of the arsonist, how the custody battle will pan out and the secret of Mia’s past. But my enjoyment was tempered by a feeling of frustration that Ng didn’t push further with her exploration of motherhood. Instead I felt the ending was rather too neat and complete.

 

 

 

 

Bookends #12 December 2018

This week’s Bookends features an article about reading African women writers, a blog post about the importance of context in our reading and a book written by a woman who for eight years was hardly out of the media spotlight.

Book: Blue Sky  by Kate Atkinson

Big SkyKate Atkinson used to be one of my favourite authors. But we parted company when she brought out A Life after Life in 2013. I abandoned it half way through. I know I was in a minority in saying that I didn’t enjoy this novel (it won the Costa Book of the Year) but sometimes that happens.  Her next book, A God In Ruins picked up some of the same characters and themes so it didn’t appeal to me.

I’ve yet to catch up with her most recent novel Transcription which features a young woman who is recruited by an obscure wartime department of the Secret Service.

But now, thanks to Susan at A Life in Books I discover that she already has another book in the pipeline. Big Sky will be published in 2019 and will mark a return after a nine year absence to her detective series, featuring the ex-Cambridge Constabulary private investigator, Jackson Bodie.

The publishers Transworld will not release details of the plot until next year so until then we’ll have to make do with the cover image….. I’m hoping however that these two books will see the return of my love affair with Atkinson.

Blog Post: Books of the Year

This is the time of year when many publications and bloggers reflect on the last 12 months and decide what titles make their ‘Books of the Year’ list. The Millions newsletter has been running a series of articles on this theme for the past few weeks – you can read them here 

If you don’t have the time to read through all these lists, help is at hand via Kate at Books are My Favourite blog who has amalgamated multiple published lists into her Top 50 Books of 2018. This is a great resource because it shows which books which most regularly appeared in “Best of ….” lists. Judging by this, An American Marriage by Tayari Jones is the outstanding hit of this year since it appears in 17 separate lists.

What I found interesting about Kate’s list was how few of the 2018 Booker Prize contenders are included. Only 11 lists included The Booker winner Milkman by Anna Burns. It actually rated lower overall than three other candidates: The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner, The Overstory by Richard Powers and Washington Black by Esi Edugyan.

Here is Kate’s post 

Article: African women writers

reading-africaGuardian journalist Gary Younge was embarrassed by how few women writers from Africa he had read. Though he was familiar with many of the big names like Chimamanda Adichi and Nadine Gordimer, there were many more countries about whose literature he knew nothing. So he decided to do something about it by making 2018 his year of reading African women writers.

He’s now read 19 books by authors from Morocco, Ghana, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Senegal, Egypt, Somalia, Uganda, Ethiopia, Cameroon and Guadeloupe.

As a result his perceptions have been turned on their head. When he began his project he expected that reading African women would be “self-improving but not necessarily enjoyable.” But to his surprise it’s been “mostly the latter and often both.” He’s read books that portrayed ordinary domestic scenes and love between Africans, books that dealt with migration and books set against a background of political upheaval.

I recognised a few of the author names he mentions but there are many more who are new to me. These will be great additions to the list of books to read for my World of Literature project. 

If you’re thinking of making a 2019 resolution to read more broadly, this article could gie you some good pointers about authors to explore. Read Gary Younge’s article here 

 

 

And so that’s a wrap for this episode of Bookends. Have you found anything new exciting and to read this week that might entice me?

WWWednesday 12 December, 2018

It’s ages since I did a post for WWWednesday which is hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words . This might turn out to be the last one for this year….

 

What are you currently reading? 

I have multiple books on the go at the moment.

I’m meant to be reading A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James because it is one of only two unread titles in my Booker prize project. However, I’m finding it hard going because it has so many different characters (75 in total), several of whom pop up at different points to tell their part of the story. I keep forgetting who all these people are and have to refer to the character list to discover whether the current narrator is the local CIA head, a Colombian drug gang member, a hooker or a journalist. Adding to the difficulty is that parts of the narration are in Jamaican patois. So it’s not the ideal novel to read late at night…..

Which is why I’m also reading The Next Big Thing by Anita Brookner. It’s another of her intense character portraits about loneliness and characters who long for something else in their lives. Hertz Fritz has led a very unremarkable life. Now 73 years old he ponders what he is going to do with the time he has remaining. He could leave London and move to Paris. He could become a regular guest on a chat show about art. He could remarry. He knows he needs to do something. But what???  He’s such a ditherer that I want to shake him out of his apathy and his constant worries about his health.

I’m also continuing to read Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker. It’s packed so full of information that I’m not able to absorb more than a few pages at a time. It’s fascinating however. I’ve learned why caffeine is absolutely the last thing you want to ingest in the evening (it blocks the hormone that tells us we need to sleep), and what happens during the different phases of sleep.

What did you recently finish reading? Miss Peabody’s Inheritance by Elizabeth Jolley

I’d never heard of Elizabeth Jolley until I saw her mentioned by Lisa at ANZ LitLovers LitBlog who held an Elizabeth Jolley reading week earlier this year. She sounded so good I immediately bought two of her books.

The first – Sugar Daddy was extremely funny at times but the humour was nicely balanced with some disquieting themes. I had high expectations that my other purchase Miss Peabody’s Inheritance would be just as enjoyable. And I have certainly not been disappointed.

This is a novel within a novel about Miss Peabody, a lonely middle-aged spinster who has a boring office job and lives with her overbearing, bedridden mother. The only excitement in her life is a correspondence she begins with a writer of romance novels in Australia. Through the letters Miss Peabody is drawn into the world of the author’s newest novel. My review of this book will follow soonish….

What do you think you’ll read next?

It’s going to take me a few weeks to finish the Marlon James I suspect but in the meantime I have the next book club choice to read by early in January. We’ve chosen The Librarian by Salley Vickers. The description tells me this is about a new children’s librarian in the small town of East Mole who is on a mission to improve the lives of local children by giving them just the right books. Then she begins a scandalous affair with a married doctor. Not sure about the romance aspect of this but if this book features books then it has to be worth reading doesn’t it? 

 

Recent reads in brief

Best selling authors Lisa Jewell and Peter James both had new books out this year. Since I’m running way behind with my reviews and I don’t have a lot to say about either of these books, I’m just going for a short

Then She Was GoneThen She Was Gone by Lisa Jewell

I’d never read anything by Lisa Jewell until this year. I know she has a large fan club but she never appealed to me. I read this only after significant badgering from a friend who is a devotee….

Then She Was Gone is set ten years after a teenage girl goes missing one day when she was on her way to the local library. Ellie’s disappearance led to a divorce and the break up of her family. Her mum Laurel is living a half life, never feeling she can move on while the mystery of her daughter’s disappearance is unresolved.

Then she meets a charming man who makes her feel there is hope. He has a nine year old girl who has a remarkable resemblance to her missing daughter. It proves to be the first in a sequence of coincidences. Questions come flooding back to Laurel. She has to know the truth no matter how painful this may be.

I’ve seen this book described as gripping and heart-breaking. I didn’t experience either of those emotions myself. I’m afraid I guessed the secret at the heart of the book a long way before its ending though it was interesting to observe how Lisa Jewell manipulated the plot to send her readers down several blind alleys. Then She Was Gone was a perfectly acceptable story and told cleverly through different narrators (the identity of one only becomes apparent a long way into the novel). It just wasn’t that special.

 

Dead if you don'tDead If You Don’t by Peter James 

This is the latest in a long running series featuring Detective Superintendent Roy Grace, based in the seaside town of  Brighton. I’ve not read all of them so I rely on my dad to fill in the blanks about Roy Grace’s personal life (his wife disappeared on the day of their wedding anniversary).

What always impresses me with these novels is the insight into police procedure that James provides. He does extensive research to ensure his story lines are feasible and the actions of Grace and his team are accurate.  Roy Grace himself is based on a real life former Detective Chief Superintendent in Sussex Police, David Gaylor, who works closely with James on his books. But James also does the rounds with police officers, attends conferences and has lunch with ex convicts.

In Dead if You Don’t I was fascinated to learn how emergency calls from the public are handled when they come into the operations centre. But the biggest eye opener was that patrol car teams on night shift duty like to play jokes on other drivers by deliberately driving below the speed limit and and seeing who is afraid to overtake.

As is always the case with Peter James, this book has a multi-stranded plot. There’s a suspect device planted at the local football ground during the home team’s biggest match of the season. Then the teenage son of a local big shot financial advisor is kidnapped; a drugs mule dies at Gatwick airport from an overdose and body parts are discovered at another location in Brighton.  Somehow they are all connected to a fight for control between the members of a large and powerful criminal network.

If you like high octane drama filled novels, this will definitely fit the bill.

Six Degrees from Christmas to Christmas

Christmas carolIt’s the last Six Degrees of the year hosted by Kate (booksaremyfavouriteandbest) and we begin with a book that for many readers is required reading at this time of the year: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. It was my first experience of Dickens, introduced to him via an abridged version that nevertheless included some lovely line drawings.

Now the obvious path from here would be a link to another Christmas related novel but I’m going to take a different direction. My thread picks up on the word carol. Or rather, the word Carol as in the girl’s name.

CarolCarol is the title of a 1952 novel about a lesbian relationship by Patricia Highsmith. Since you are all astute readers, you’ll see immediately that my sentence is wildly inaccurate.

Highsmith actually used a pseudonym of Claire Morgan because some of the characters and events in the story referred to her own life.  And the book was originally called The Price of Salt but underwent a change of title to Carol when it was re-printed in 1990. This is the title used for the recent film version issued in 2005 and starring Cate Blanchett.

Carol is not the first — and highly unlikely to be the last — novel with more than one title.  I’m almost spoiled for choice with my next book in this link. I’m settling for one that underwent an identity change as a result of a mix up between publishers.

northern lightsNorthern Lights  is an award-winning young adult fantasy novel by Philip Pullman about an Arctic quest by Lyra Belacqua in search of her missing friend and her uncle who has been conducting experiments with a mysterious substance known as “Dust”. Pullman conceived this as the first part of a trilogy. During pre-publication the UK publishers used a working series title of The Golden Compasses — an allusion to God’s poetic delineation of the world. Across the Atlantic however, the US publishers Knopf had been calling the first book The Golden Compass (singular)  mistakenly thinking this related to a device featured on the front cover that looked like a navigational compass.

By the time Pullman decided his preferred name for the trilogy would be His Dark Materials (rather than The Golden Compasses), Knopf had become very attached to their own title., They insisted on publishing the first book as The Golden Compass. This was adopted as the name for the 2007 film version with Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig.

The Golden Compass/Northern Lights has been controversial ever since its publication in 1995, primarily because it was considered to promote atheism and attack Christianity, in particular the Catholic church. Consequently the book frequently appears on lists of books that are banned from a number of public libraries and schools in the United States.

Colour purpleAnother novel that has been fiercely denounced and also banned is Alice Walker’s epistolary novel about racism, sexism and poverty The Colour Purple.  Objectors cited its graphic sexual content and also “troubling ideas” about race relations and religion in arguing for its removal from schools.

While The Color Purple does contain a lot of controversial content, none of this is gratuitous. The attitudes and behaviours portrayed by Alice Walker are ugly but they are nevertheless real. Even more worrying is that in some parts of the world, prejudice continues to exist and is all too prevalent.


The Mars Room

Rachel Kushner’s 2018 novel The Mars Room is a reminder that prejudice takes several forms. In this novel, shortlisted for the Booker Prize, she shows how the legal and penal system in America works against people from the poorest groups in society. Unable to afford a decent lawyer, they have to rely on state appointed legal representatives who are often too over-worked and too underpaid to do more than a superficial review of their client’s case. Consequently people like the protagonist Romy Hall never get to tell their full story in court including any mitigating circumstances.

I seem to have stepped onto a soap box which may not be what you want to read. This is after all, meant to be the time of year when we display charity,  forgiveness and goodwill to each and everyone (and yes that does include the  person who just barged into the back of your heels with a pushchair, and the one who biffed you in the ribs with their overlarge backpack.)

So in that spirit I shall make my final book somewhat more uplifting. I don’t do feel-good books (I find them generally too cloying) but I’m sure I can find a book that is a tad bit more cheerful.

little-womenYep, I have it – a good partner to A Christmas Carol in fact since this is book is also considered a classic. It’s another I read and enjoyed as a child though reading it as an adult a few years ago, was a vastly different experience.

I’m referring of course to Little Women by Louisa M Alcott which was published in 1863 and proved so popular it sold more than 13,000 copies within six weeks of its release.  Against her own preference, Alcott was persuaded to write the sequel Good Wives. Though I still love the tomboy character of Jo March ( I suspect I was not alone in wanting to be just like her), the overall story was too didactic for my tastes now.

But it couldn’t be more appropriate for this last chain of the year since it begins with a very seasonal reference.

Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.

And so we come full circle. We’ve come a long way on our journey, from the Arctic to the American deep south. Where has your chain taken you?

Kingdom of the Blind by Louise Penny #bookreview

Kingdom of the BlindHow long can a series endure before it runs out of steam?

Louise Penny’s crime series set in Quebec has long been one of my favourite crime writers. Her central character, Armand Gamache, chief of police, is a superbly conceived character; he’s surrounded by some equally well-executed personalities among his friends and family and he lives in the delightful (fictional) village of Three Pines. Penny’s

When we reached book ten of this series however I did wonder how much further Penny could go with this set up. She settled all my doubts with book eleven A Great Reckoning (my review is here). 

But she’s just published book number 14  and it saddens me to say that my earlier  doubts have resurfaced. I so wish that wasn’t the case because the fact that Kingdom of the Blind was written at all is a testament to Penny’s resilience and courage.

Penny’s husband Michael, who was the inspiration for Armand Gamache, died in September 2016. In the introduction to Kingdom of the Blind, Louise  Penny says she didn’t feel she could write again after his death.  “How could I go on when half of me was missing? I could barely get out of bed,” she said.

But one day she found herself at the dining table where she always did her writing. The first day she wrote just two words  — the name of her protagonist. The next day the word count trebled and kept on increasing day by day.

Kingdom of the Blind was begun. Not with sadness. Not because I had to but with joy. … Even as I wrote about some very dark themes, it was with gladness. With relief. That I get to keep doing this.

The darkness she mentions relates to one of the two major plots in the novel.

A new ultra powerful, ultra dangerous, opioid drug is about to hit the streets of Montreal. The finger of blame is pointed at Gamache who allowed a large cache of the drug to escape seizure during a major drugs raid. As a result he’s been suspended from his role as Chief Superintendent of the Sûreté du Québec, pending an internal investigation. Then one of his proteges at the police academy, the rebellious cadet Amelia Choquet, is discovered with drugs in her possession.

Against this background Gamache receives a letter summoning him to a dilapidated house in a small rural village. There he discovers he is one of three people named as executors in the will of a woman who called herself The Baroness. Gamache has never met her, has no idea why she should have entrusted her last wishes to him,  a retired psychologist (his friend Myrna Landers from Three Pines) and a young accident-prone  builder from Montreal.  It’s not long before a body is found and Gamache’s suspicions are aroused.

Penny hasn’t lost her gift for evoking the spirit of the Quebec countryside and its fierce winters. Early in the novel a winter storm descends upon Gamache and the village of Three Pines; a metaphor for the turmoil that threatens to engulf the police chief. But these villagers take the weather in their stride; it’s just an excuse to indulge in their favourite foods (a word of warning – reading this book will get you salivating for tarte tatin and cafe au lait) or to head to the village bistro for a gossip. All the usual people are in evidence in Kingdom of the Blind:  Gamache’s wife Reine-Marie, his son-in-law and assistant Jean-Guy Beaulieu, the artist Clara Morrow, bistro owners Gabri Dubeau and the poet Ruth Zardo.

Gamache is more introspective in this novel than in all the previous titles. He’s always been conscious of his failings, following a code of conduct based on the philosophy of Marcus Aurelius. He advises his junior officers to take on board four statements: I don’t know. I need help. I was wrong. I’m sorry.

In Kingdom of the Blind he seems more vulnerable, more weighed down by ghosts from the past.

… he remembered  … all the raids, the assaults, the arrests. The investigations over the yers. The victims. All the sightless, staring eyes. Of men, women, children whose murder he’d investigated. Over the years. Whose murderers he’d hunted down. All the agents he’d sent, often led, into the gun smoke.

There’s a sense in Gamache’s mood — which is reflected in some scenes at the end of the book — that he is facing significant changes in his life and his career. Without giving the game away for people who have yet to read this book, the nature of those changes make me wonder how it’s going to be feasible for Penny to continue this series. The inheritance plot of Kingdom of the Blind wasn’t one of her best, another indication for me that the series is reaching a natural conclusion.  Even so it is still superior to many of the crime novels currently in circulation. 

I could be wrong. Louise Penny surprised me once before. She could do it again.

 

 

 

 

Non fiction November: temptations to buy

nonfiction-november-2018

We’re into the final week of Non Fiction November 2018.

Katie @ Doing Dewey has asked us to highlight books that we’ve seen mentioned by other contributors that have tempted us to add to our TBR/wishlist.

I haven’t rushed out and bought anything yet but have been making a lot of notes about books I’ve seen mentioned by other participants in the last few weeks. I could have listed a stack of other titles but the chances I will ever read them are very slim since I seem to manage only a handful of non fiction titles each year. Consequently I have limited myself to three.

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick. I’m curious about life in this country. It’s such a politically controlled society that we get only  smatterings of information. I’m wondering if this book digs a bit deeper. It was highlighted by Rennie @ What’s Nonfiction who described the book as a biography of loosely connected people from the North Korean port city of Chongjin. She added:

Demick painstakingly fleshes out the lives and memories of these successful defectors; the stories have stuck with me down to the minutest details.

I enjoy the odd spot of investigative journalism and true crime. There have been some excellent podcasts that have kept me enthralled this year but I haven’t read many books from the category. Fortunately Sarah at Sarah’sbookshelves.com had plenty of suggestions. 

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara 

The one that most appealed was I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara.  McNamara, previously a true crime writer and blogger at TrueCrimeDiary.com, investigated the unsolved crimes of a 1970’s-80’s serial rapist and murderer that she dubbed the Golden State Killer. She died before her book could be published and before she learned that the killer   was caught via DNA evidence.

The Hollow Crown by Dan Jones

This one comes via a suggestion by Helen at She Reads Novels . I’m familiar with the Tudors and Stuart periods of British history but my knowledge of the Wars of the Roses is somewhat confused. I’d be interested to read about the period but I don’t want a turgid academic work. Nor do I want something this is just superficial. Dan Jones’ book seems to fit the bill. He is a trained historian so I know the book will be based on accurate and detailed research but he is also a writer and broadcaster so knows how to convey information in a compelling and engaging manner.

These are books that will definitely feature in my letter to Santa this year (so if any members of my family are reading this, I hope they take the hint.)

 

Classic Club Spin: A vicar’s tale awaits me

roulette

Photo by Krissia Cruz on Unsplash

The wheel has spun in the 19th round of the Classic Club Spin.  It landed on number 1 which means I will be reading The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith. Published in 1766, this is the oldest book remaining from my Classics Club list. 

This is in fact the second time this book has been selected in a Classics Club spin. It was the book I was meant to read in April 2015 but I never got around to it for reasons I can no longer remember.

It’s about a vicar (no surprises there) and his family of six children who live an idyllic life in a country parish until he loses all his money. They are forced to move to a new and more humble parish. What ensues is a series of set backs and calamities including fire, abduction and imprisonment before order is once more restored.

Narrated by Dr Charles Primrose (the vicar) in 32 chapters, the novel begins:

I was ever of the opinion, that the honest man who married and brought up a large family, did more service than he who continued single, and only talked of population. 

It’s on my list because it was one of the most popular and widely read of 18th-century novels in Britain.  Encyclopaedia Britannica says the novel’s idealization of rural life, sentimental moralizing, and melodramatic incidents are countered by a sharp but good-natured irony. I was relieved to discover that the tone was ironic because I feared it would be just  ‘comic’, a style which I don’t particularly enjoy.

Have any of you read this? If so, what was your impression? Am I in for an enjoyable read or a bit of a so-so experience?

Classic Club: Spin #19

classicsclub3

It’s time for another Classic Club Spin.  I wasn’t going to participate this time around because I already have a few books lined up to read in the next few weeks. But then I noticed today that we have an extra long period in which to read the selected book.

So here we go with a list of 20 books remaining from my Classics Club list.  I don’t actually have 20 titles remaining from my original list – I am down to the last 13 in fact – so have had to add in a few extras just to make up the numbers.

Here is my list. I’ve tried to go for a mixture across centuries and geographies. The bulk are  from the twentieth century but I’ve included a smattering from eighteenth and nineteenth centuries also. Geographically, it’s a mix of British, French, American and Australian. Just to be patriotic I included  two titles by authors from Wales.

  1. The Vicar of Wakefield  — Oliver Goldsmith 1766
  2. The Black Sheep  — Honore Balzac 1842
  3. Basil Wilkie Collins 1852
  4. Framley Parsonage  Anthony Trollope 1861
  5. The Kill/La Curée – Emile Zola 1871-2
  6. Daniel Deronda  — George Eliot 1876
  7. New Grub Street George Gissing 1891
  8. My Brilliant Career — Miles Franklin  1901
  9. O pioneers —  Willa Cather  1913
  10. Gone to Earth  — Mary Webb 1917
  11. Return of the Soldier  — Rebecca West 1917
  12. Age of Innocence  — Edith Wharton 1920
  13. The Last September —  Elizabeth Bowen 1929
  14. All Passion Spent  Vita Sackville West 1932
  15. Frost in May Antonia White 1933
  16. Old Soldiers Never Die Frank Richards 1933
  17. Turf or Stone  — Margiad Evans 1934
  18. The Grapes of Wrath   John Steinbeck 1939
  19. Never No More Maura Laverty 1942
  20. The Quiet American  — Graham Greene 1955

 

Tomorrow we learn which of these titles I will be reading between now and the end of January 2019. I have a hankering for the Trollope, it seems just the right kind of book to be reading in front of a cosy fire. But otherwise I have no particular favourites.

Beartown by Fredrik Backman #book reviews

Fredrik Backman joined the list of Nordic writers to achieve best seller status  with his debut novel A Man Called Ove.  A few other novels later he produced another hit: Beartown

It’s been called a sports novel and also a crime novel. Neither descriptions do justice to this book. Yes it dwells a lot on ice hockey which is the all-consuming passion of the inhabitants of the small community of Beartown. And yes a crime does take place. But Backman’s focus is more on the effects of the crime on the people living in this community than on the crime itself.

Beartown has seen better days. Every year more jobs disappear. Every year the forest swallows up another abandoned house so the whole place looks as “nature and man were fighting a tug-of-war for space.”

But its local inhabitants believe a new future is just around the corner. All that needs to happen is for their talented junior ice hockey team to win the national championship. Success will be the catalyst for new investment in the town, starting with a new ice hockey stadium and academy to replace the rusting rink built forty years earlier.

All the hopes and dreams of this community now rest on the shoulders of a bunch of 15-year-old boys. And on the shoulders of one boy in particular; their star player Kevin.  But shortly before the team’s most critical match, Kevin is accused of rape by Maya, the teenage daughter of the hockey club’s much-admired general manager.

Backman traces what led up to this act;  the pressures faced by the players, the conflict between the team’s financiers and its coaching staff, the hormonal impulses experienced by teenagers. The inner life of this community is laid bare, revealing homophobia, sexism and class prejudice beneath a veneer of respectability. The people of Beartown coached their junior team to display the same values the first settlers held dear: work hard, keep your mouth shut and don’t complain.

But those values come under strain as the community begins to take sides. Even those who believe Maya’s accusations (and there are plenty who don’t) keep asking why the girl just couldn’t have kept silent. Or rather why couldn’t she just have waited until the game was over?

This is a novel that avoids the easy answers. It shows that people are complicated and inconsistent.

So the first thing that happens in a conflict is that we choose a side, because that’s easier than trying to hold two thoughts in our heads at the same time. The second thing that happens is that we seek out facts that confirm what we want to believe – comforting facts, ones that permit life to go on as normal. The third is that we dehumanize our enemy.”

Beartown is a thought-provoking novel that forces us as readers to evaluate our own values and whether what we consider loyalty is necessarily an admirable quality.

There are few words that are harder to explain than “loyalty.” It’s always regarded as a positive characteristic, because a lot of people would say that many of the best things people do for each other occur precisely because of loyalty. The only problem is that many of the very worst things we do to each other occur because of the same thing.

Can this town recover? Reading it you hope that there are sufficient vestiges of courage and decency to make that possible. But then you remember the very first sentence in the novel:

Late one evening toward the end of March, a teenager picked up a double-barreled shotgun, walked into the forest, put the gun to someone else’s forehead, and pulled the trigger.

Beartown isn’t perfect. It took a bit too long for me to get into the meat of the story ( I was getting rather tired of all the hockey practice details) but once it did, it proved to be a riveting read. It’s full of some memorable characters, especially Maya who is determined not to be either a victim or the guilty party; and Amat, the boy who dreams of being accepted as part of the team even though he has none of their wealth and privileged upbringing. What he lacks in stature however, he more than makes up for with his speed, agility and dogged determination. The scenes where he takes to the ice taking a battering against bigger, more powerful players are especially moving. 

It’s a tribute to Backman’s skill that he made a novel containing so much sport, an entertaining read for someone who has little to zero in sport as a whole. 

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