Category Archives: Book Reviews
Today marked yet another attempt to bring some order to the chaos of my book collection. Thanks to a mini cull I can see some space on the bookshelves which is just as well because the piles on the floor are in danger of toppling.
Every time I do this exercise I make a discovery about my stock of “owned but unread” books. Today’s discovery was that I own a load more crime fiction novels than I expected.
It’s a surprise because, though I’m partial to a little crime fiction from time to time, I’ve never considered myself a huge fan.
I view them as entertaining, something I enjoy at the time, but not the kind of book that makes me think or that lingers in my mind long after I’ve got to the final page. Most of them are so forgettable that, were you to ask me to describe a particular book, I’d be in difficulties.
Those I do recall are memorable because the characterisation is sharp, the setting evocative and the narrative deals with interesting issues. Hence why I enjoy Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Gamache series so much.
Given all this, how have I ended up owning 22 crime fiction books?
Fortunately I can turn to the spreadsheet where I record all my purchases and acquisitions (gifts, donations, ARCs etc) to find some answers.
Completing A Series
A few are parts of a series I’ve been following. That accounts for my copies of Nature Of The Beast and Bury Your Dead which are part of the series by Louise Penny I mentioned earlier.
It also accounts for In Two Minds by Alis Hawkins. It’s the second in her Teifi Valley Coroner series and I enjoyed the first None So Blind so much I had to get the follow up. I do need to read this soon however because there is a third book Those Who Can due out in May 2020.
Earlier this year I started reading a series by Abir Mukherjeeset in India at the time of the Raj. I must have been convinced this would be good because even before I read book one, A Rising Man, I had already bought books 2 and 3 and have an ARC of the fourth.
Who Can Resist A Bargain?
I can’t, at least not when it comes to books.
I volunteer at a National Trust property which runs a second hand bookshop as a way of raising funds. So of course every time I report for duty I just have to have a peek at the most recent donations.
The prices are ridiculously low – just £1 will get you a paperback in good condition (the volunteers who run the shop vet everything before it goes on the shelves). So hard to resist…..
Which is how I acquired two books by Jane Harper: The Dry and The Lost Man, both of which a friend had highly recommended.
A “two for the price of one” offer at The Works brought me Stasi Child, a debut novel by David Young which has won several awards. What attracted my interest was that it is set in the former East Germany during the time of the Cold War. I also bought the follow up Stasi Wolf.
I have a set of three books by Alexander Wilson that came as a discounted bundle from The Book People. Wilson was one of the pen names of Alexander Joseph Patrick “Alec” Wilson, an English spy and MI6 officer. I’ve no idea about the quality of the books; maybe their plots won’t be as interesting as the real life story of the author. After his death in 1963 he was discovered to have been a serial bigamist but then questions began about the true nature of his intelligence work.
There are some books I bought purely on the strength of reviews from other bloggers, mentions in social media and the occasional newspaper review. Unfortunately I failed to record the exact source of the recommendation – something I shall try to remedy with any future purchases.
Into this category falls Sixty Four by Hideo Yokoyama which revolves around the disappearance of two teenage girls 14 years apart. It was published with considerable buzz in 2018. It’s a massively chunky book , which is probably why I haven’t tackled it yet.
I also have Lewis Man by Peter May which is clearly a mistake because it’s book number one in a trilogy and I don’t have book one. So now I have to decide whether to go back to the beginning and add yet another title to my shelves…..
It’s going to take me a few years to work my way through all of these because I’ll space them out among other genres. If you’re a crime fiction expert maybe you can help me decide which of these to read first? And if there are any titles here that I could maybe give away…..
The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne
by Brian Moore
Brian Moore’s unflinching yet sympathetic portrait of loneliness qualifies as the most painfully sad book I’ve read for many years.
Judith Hearne – or Judy she calls herself when daydreaming – is a 40-something year old spinster. An orphan with no relatives, few friends and little money. All she has is her faith and a dream that one day she will meet a man who remove her from her dreary life into one of married bliss. She has a clear picture of this man and their life together:
He came into the room, late at night, tired after a day at work in his hotel. He took off his jacket and hung it up. He put his dressing gown on and sat down in his armchair and she went to him prettily, sat on his knee while he told her how things had gone that day. And he kissed her. Or, enraged about some silly thing she had done, he struck out with his great fist and sent her reeling, the brute. But, contrite afterwards, he sank to his knees and begged forgiveness.
Judy Hearne, she said, you’ve got to stop right this minute. Imagine romancing about every man that comes along.
When the book opens she has moved into a shabby room in a Belfast boarding house in what “used to be one of the best parts of the city.” Here she expects to spend most of her evenings “waiting like a prisoner for the long night hours.”
Her one treat is a weekly visit to her friends the O’Neill family. She views their children fondly as her “little nieces and nephews”, unaware that they mock her and their parents tolerate her out of a sense of duty.
Dreams of Mr Right
The only bright spot on the horizon is a fellow guest, the landlady’s brother James Madden who has just returned to Ireland after many years in America. Before long she’s imagining him as a future partner and her new life in New York.
Mr and Mrs James Madden, of New York, sailed from Southampton yesterday in the Queen Mary. Mr Madden is a prominent New York hotelier and his bride is the former Judith Hearne, only daughter of the late Mr and Mrs Charles B. Hearne, of Ballymena. The honeymoon? Niagara Falls, isn’t that the place Americans go? Or perhaps Paris, before we sail.
But then, as so often in the past it seems, she has woefully misread the signs. Her life slips once more towards humiliation and pain. Just when she needs it most, her beloved Church fails her; her appeals to the parish priest simply brushed aside.
Solace lies in a bottle. In one of the most powerful, painful scenes of the novel she retires to her soulless room and opens the bottle locked away in her trunk.
A drink would put things right. Drink was not to help forget, but to help remember, to clarify and arrange untidy and unpleasant facts into a perfect pattern of reasonableness and beauty. Alcoholic, she did not drink to put aside the dangers and disappointments of the moment. She drank to be able to see these trials more philosophically, to examine them more fully, fortified by the stimulant of unreason.
In The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, Brian Moore gives us an arresting but disturbing portrait of a woman forever chasing a dream only to have hope crushed over and over again. What we come to suspect is that she has had drunken episodes before, having to leave previous boarding houses when her raucous singing upset
A Constrained Life
It’s a terrific portrait of loneliness and despair. The Ireland of the 1950s is a bleak place for a woman like Judith Hearne. Her convent education has given her few skills to offer on the jobs market yet without an income (and no savings to fall back on) it’s a struggle to keep up a veneer of respectability.
There are few options to occupy her time that are both cheap and respectable beyond window shopping and church services. Nor are there friends to gossip with or share experiences and memories. In a life without excitement every incident assumes momentous importance, something to be savoured and perhaps exaggerated.
All The Lonely People
It’s uncomfortable reading because you know that although this is a fictional character, you also know that there are many Judiths today who are just as lonely and despairing.
The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne is a terrific book. The characterisation is excellent but the sense of Ireland at this point in time is superbly evoked. James Madden sees it as a dull place, lacking the vibrancy and ambition of New York, a city where even a lowly hotel doorman can feel alive. While Judith is the star of the show Brian Moore gives us two especially distasteful characters in the shape of the morally questionable James Madden and the landlady’s slobbish son Bernard.
Without question, this is a book to savour.
The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne: End Notes
I read this novel as part of my Classics Club project. Only 3 more to go.
This was the debut novel of Brian Moore, the novel that brought him to public attention. It was rejected by ten American publishers before being accepted by a British publisher.
Published in 1955, the book won the Authors’ Club First Novel Award and was immediately optioned for the film rights.
The novel was originally titled simply Judith Hearne. The longer title was adopted after the film version issued in 1987 and starring Maggie Smith.
Brian Moore wrote the novel after leaving Northern Ireland for Canada, in part because of the religious conflict in his native country. He was awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1975 and shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1976 (The Doctor’s Wife), 1987 (The Colour of Blood) and 1990. (Lies of Silence)
He died in January 1999.
Becoming by Michelle Obama
Of the million or so photographs featuring Michelle Obama, two will be forever etched in my memory.
One shows the First Lady of the United States jumping about and getting sweaty with a bunch of kids on the front lawn of the White House.
The other image dates from her first visit to the United Kingdom. During an official reception hosted by Queen Elizabeth II, Michelle Obama put her arm around the monarch.
To say the resulting photographs astonished royal watchers is putting it mildly because touching the Queen is strictly forbidden. It’s not treason as such (an offence that could see you carted off to the Tower of London) but it’s definitely one of the most heinous transgressions of royal protocol.
What was astonishing about both these images was that they turned on their head everything we’d ever seen from previous holders of the role of First Lady.
There’s no position description for the First Lady. But we got used to the idea over the decades that they’re in a supportive role to the star turn of The President. Always gracious, always immaculately dressed; a walking advert for American fashion designers. They can engage in charitable endeavours but rarely speak out about issues.
Michelle Obama broke that mould. Never before had we seen a First Lady dress so casually in sneakers, leggings and t shirts; Never before had we seen her get down and dirty while digging and planting a vegetable patch. And never before had we seen someone so touchy-feely.
Her memoir Becoming was similarly ground breaking. It’s the first completely honest account from a First Lady of the experiences that shaped her personality and influenced her attitudes.
It’s a work of stellar storytelling taking us from her modest background in Chicago, through academic success to an unfulfilling career in corporate law. The life she envisaged was “a predictable, control-freak existence – the one with the steady salary, a house to life in forever, a routine to my days.”
But then came the event that changed her life entirely – she was asked to take a young, mega talented law student under her wing during a summer placement. Barak Obama put her life on a completely new trajectory, catapulting her into the uncomfortable world of politics and to the highest office in her country.
It’s a career progression that in some eyes would be considered a fairytale. What I loved most about Becoming is that she is so candid about her struggles and disappointments.
Most of the issues she describes are those that ordinary people can relate to easily. The struggle to balance work with family commitments; the heartbreak of miscarriages and the challenge of maintaining a relationship with a partner who is away from home for much of the week.
Taking up residence in the White House presents a whole new set of difficulties. She can’t open a window because it’s a security risk. She can’t go out with her husband without entire streets being closed down. She can’t even go to a shop to buy him an anniversary card. Being in the public eye means every thing she says or wears is subjected to public scrutiny; even a change of hairstyle has to be agreed in advance by the Presidents’s staff.
Chief of her concerns however is the well-being of her daughters. The constant question for Michelle Obama is how to make sure the girls enjoy a normal childhood experience when they have to be accompanied everywhere by protection offers. Not much fun when you want to go out on your first date.
Dealing With Criticism
And of course, there is the constant threat to her projects from detractors who see her as a threat.
I was female, black, and strong, which to certain people, maintaining a certain mind-set, translated only to ‘angry.’ It was another damaging cliché, one that’s been forever used to sweep minority women to the perimeter of every room, an unconscious signal not to listen to what we’ve got to say.
What comes through strongly is that Michelle Obama is a woman with an exceptionally strong streak of determination. She learned at an early age to never give up and that the best way to deal with people who wanted to thwart her ambition, was to ignore them. It’s an attitude she saw exhibited by many of the highly talented people she met later in life.
All of them have had doubters. Some continue to have roaring, stadium sized collections of critics and naysayers who will shout I told you so at every little misstep or mistake. The noise, doesn’t go away, but the most successful people I know have figured out how to live with it, to lean on the people who believe in them, and to push onward with their goals.
Self -belief is one of the lessons she wants to pass on through the book, as she did with the groups of young women she met throughout her time as First Lady.
Becoming A Role Model
Becoming has been one of my best reading experiences of 2019. It’s an account of extraordinary life told with intelligence, humour, warmth and oodles of self-awareness.
This is a woman who had a once in a lifetime opportunity to bring about changes. While her husband focused on changing attitudes to healthcare and gun control, she focused on child obesity and job and education opportunities for ex servicemen.
In doing so she became a role model for young women around the world. But Michelle Obama is emphatic at the end of the book that she has no intention of going into politics herself.
I’ve never been a fan of politics, and my experience over the last ten
years has done little to change that.
That doesn’t mean she is going to disappear – the initiatives that she lead while First Lady are so close to her heart that she is continuing to work on them. But what lies ahead is an interesting question. The title of her book refers to the idea that each of us is perpetually changing, evolving, not stopping at some set point — with the implication that we can always become better. It’s a clue that we can expect to see more of her in the future. A clear case of Watch This Space.
I have spent my entire academic life focusing on gender history: any essay that I could manipulate to have a sex and gender angle, I most definitely would. It’s the area of study in which I’m most well read on, the idea of feminism (and particularly the world of academic feminism), can be intimidating to many people.
I’m not going to try and define modern feminism here (that would require a thesis word count), but the books I’ve detailed below provide an initial way entry point in exploring different aspects of feminism in the twenty-first century
Now, I admit that all of these books are targeted at a younger audience – particularly towards millennials and Gen-Z in the case of Feminists Don’t Wear Pink and Everything I Know About Love. And I know that I am a millennial myself, but I do feel that there is a universality and inclusivity to each work, that hopefully makes them accessible to a wide audience.
Each is flawed in its own way – these are not academic texts, and I’m not claiming that any of these are a bible which provides all of the answers, or is even representative of all types of feminism or all women.
But they’re a good jumping off point.
Ah, old reliable. Caitlin Moran’s memoir seeks to make feminism more approachable for every woman by telling stories from her own life, and this is the book which first ignited the strident feminist in me.
Mr O’Neill, my Government and Politics A Level teacher, declared to his class of nine seventeen-year-old girls that before we could start studying feminism as a political ideology, we all had to read How to Be a Woman.
By the time we reconvened a few days later, all of our outlooks had changed, and none of us have looked back since that point over six years ago. (I do see the irony in being introduced to the topic by a male teacher!)
The entire book has Moran’s signature style, using humour to tackle serious topics, to make issues such as abortion less intimidating. It’s a riot from start to finish, and is still as relevant as it was when published in 2011.
Considering I have just written an MA dissertation with this book as a case study, there are many things I could say (and have said) on the topic of Scarlett Curtis’ curated collection of essays.
Published in 2018 to an enormous amount of fanfare, the collection Feminists Don’t Wear Pink sees contributions from fifty-two different authors, from many walks of life. Some authors give their verdict on 21st century feminism, others muse on the female body, or offer insight into their own journey to feminism.
So we have Keira Knightley discussing the interpretation of women as the weaker sex. Activist Amika George considers the power of the menstrual cycle while academic Claire Horn provides a ‘short history of feminist theory’.
I do have quite a few issues with this publication which could warrant a blog post of their own (or a dissertation!). Overall however, the contents are inclusive and wide-ranging, and thus provide a more varied introduction to feminism than you would normally get in a singular book.
Potentially a slightly odd choice, as it is not a book explicitly about feminism. Dolly Alderton’s intimate memoir recounts the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of growing up and navigating a multitude of different types of love along the way.
In its entirety, Everything I Know About Love is truly a testament to female friendship, and the power that comes with realising that you alone are enough. Personal stories, satirical observations and even recipes all weave together to strike a note of recognition with women of all ages – whilst genuinely making you laugh.
To be honest, I also had a series of little cries along the way.
This is just a shortlist of books on this vast topic. If anyone wants some further reading suggestions, particularly on the academic side, I would only be too happy to oblige! I have many bibliographies to call on…
Please comment below if you have any additional suggestions for a jumping off point – it’s a topic I will truly never be tired of, and I would encourage some healthy debate!
This is the second of two posts for week 4 of Non Fiction November 2019. You can find the first post which is a request for recommendations of top notch memoirs here
I admit defeat. No amount of wishful thinking is going to get me through the backlog of books I’ve read but haven’t yet reviewed (10 at the last count).
It’s time for a dose of reality. No amount of bashing my head against the wall is going to get me to a point where I have the time to write the usual full reviews on all those books. Which means that mini reviews are going to the order of the day.
The Welsh Girl by Peter Ho Davies
The Welsh Girl, Peter Ho Davies’s first novel ,is set in 1944 in a remote village in Snowdonia, North Wales. Until now this is a community untouched by the war. All that changes in the wake of D-Day when a site near the village is selected as the base of a new German POW camp.
First to arrive are the English sappers charged with constructing the camp. Then come the prisoners. The strangers are a huge source of curiosity among the locals including seventeen-year-old Esther, daughter of a fiercely Welsh nationalist sheep farmer.
She works as a barmaid in the local pub while yearning for a taste of more excitement. For a time this is offered by one of the soldiers but the relationship goes horribly wrong. She is more suited to one of the prisoners, a German naval infantryman who is haunted because he’d ordered his men to surrender. The pair are drawn into a romance that calls into question issues of loyalty and belonging.
The Welsh Girl deals extensively with national identity, particularly that of the Welsh. The village’s strong sense of identity comes through in their pride in the Welsh language and their culture. Nationalism is, Ho Davies, says ” what holds the place together, like a cracked and glued china teapot.”
It’s a perfectly good story with some subtly drawn characters. It treads similar ground to Owen Sheers’ Resistance in its themes of love of land and country, love and hate of nations, love and suspicion among people, fear and war and common decency. But Ho Davies’s version is more convincing.
Circe by Madeline Miller
I was not enthused to hear this had been chosen by my fellow members at the book club. Partly because I feared my minuscule knowledge of Greek myths would be a barrier to understanding the narrative. But more significantly, I struggle to engage with magical realism and books whose characters are not human or real.
But within one chapter all my fears were set aside. I was hooked on this tale of Circe, unloved and under-valued daughter of the sun god Helios, who finds through witchcraft the power to combat her unhappy childhood. Miller gives her a voice, showing her as a multi-faceted, complex person who experiences both joy and loneliness in a life independent of her famous father.
This is a book that has everything: jealousy and revenge; struggles of conscience; love and betrayal within a tale of adventure and romance. The descriptions – such as that of of Helios’ glittering ‘court’ – are spectacularly sumptuous. And if you want breathtaking adventure, you just need to read the scene where sailors do battle with one of Circe’s creations, the hideous sea monster Scylla.
The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West
I’m in awe of the fact The Return of the Soldier was written when Rebecca West was just 24 years old. The depth of understanding of human nature and relationships it displays suggests an author with many more years of experience of life.
The eponymous soldier is 36-year-old Chris Baldry who has returned from the first world war physically intact but shell-shocked. He’s forgotten the past 15 years of his life. He’s forgotten that he’s married to Kitty and they once had a son who died. All he remembers is a time when he was 21 and deeply in love with a woman called Margaret.
There are three women in his life who all want to see him restored to health. His wife Kitty, an attractive, stylish woman but with a detached, reserved nature; Margaret, his lost love who is no longer the beautiful girl he remembers but a worn out frump. And Jenny, his devoted cousin who is the book’s narrator,
The women have a choice – to accept him as he is now, happy though deluded or to try and shock him out of his amnesia. But if they succeed and ‘cure’ him, he will be fit enough to return to the front (and potentially to his death). It is Margaret, the quiet, resourceful woman, who reveals a hidden depth and greatest love.
Although the novel is set during World War 1, it isn’t about the war. In fact it’s not until very close to the end that there is any significant detail about conditions at the front for example. The focus is entirely on the emotional and psychological effect of battle and conflict.
But it also deals with issues of class. Both Kitty and Jenny are horribly dismissive of Margaret who they see “repulsively furred with neglect and poverty”). They find it difficult to conceive that Chris would reject the wealth and status of a life with them, in favour of poverty and plainness with Margaret. To her credit however Jenny does come to recognise that Margaret outshines them in putting Chris’s needs above her own.
This is aa short but intense piece of fiction that had me going in search of what else Rebecca West had written.