Category Archives: Bookends

In review: Ten winners of the Booker Prize

top-ten-tuesday-new

The first book I ever reviewed was so dreadful that I have obliterated its title from my memory.

It was by Maeve Binchey and though I know she is extremely popular among some readers, I vowed never to read anything by her again. Ever. I only got to the end because it formed part of a book review column that was being introduced on the newspaper where I was a rather junior reporter.

Maybe it was that experience that destroyed my interest in reviewing. It wasn’t until I started this blog that I began in earnest. I’m re-interpreting the brief for  this week’s Top 10 topic.

Instead of listing the first 10 reviews to appear on this blog (which would be dull) I’m opting for the first 10 reviews of Booker Prize winners. It is after all my project to read all the prize winners that prompted me to begin the blog in 2012.

Here’s my list. All links take you to my review

  1. The Elected Member by Bernice Rubens. The very first review to appear on this blog, was this 1970 winner. It’s embarrassing to look back at this review – I clearly had a lot to learn…
  2. Something to Answer For by P H Newby. This review appeared in April 2012. My attempt was slightly – but only slightly – better than the first effort.
  3. Saville by David Storey. This appeared in the same month as the Newby review. Not a book I cared for at all as my review indicates all too clearly.
  4. Staying On by Paul Scott. This is a follow up to his superb series called The Raj Quartet. Not only did I thoroughly enjoy this book, I’m also happier with the quality of the review.
  5. White Tiger by Arvind Adiga  I remember enjoying this novel which won the 2008 Booker Prize but I see from my review that I wasn’t that keen on the ending.
  6. Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel. A wonderful book and one of my favourite Booker winners.
  7. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie. Definitely not one of my favourite Booker winners. Though I admired the technical virtuosity and the brilliance of the imagination, I struggled to finish the book – and also, I seem to remember, struggled to write a review.
  8. Possession by A S Byatt. These reviews do seem to be getting more coherent (at last)
  9. The Sea by John Banville  My review from 2013 may not have done full justice to this book but at least it’s no longer embarrassing to read after all these years.
  10. Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner. And so we reach July 2013 and a novel that was a re-read.

It’s been interesting to look back at these blog posts and to see the progress I made in just over a year of writing reviews. When I decided to begin blogging I had no concerns about my ability to write: I had after all trained as a journalist and had worked for years in a communications role. But it didn’t take long for me to appreciate that writing reviews of books is an art that requires a completely different skill set.

There is still a long, long way to go before I reach the point where I find it easier to write these reviews and am more satisfied with the result. I wonder if I ever will reach that day or whether I’m too too much of a perfectionist to ever be satisfied….


Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme created by The Broke and the Bookish and now hosted by Jana at That Artsy Reader Girl. .

Six Degrees from Ali Smith to Susan Hill

 

This month’s Six Degrees of Separation begins with a book that has divided opinion ever since it was published in 2014.

Howtobe bothHow to Be Both by Ali Smith contains two stories. One story features the Italian renaissance artist, Francesco del Cossa, a real-life figure who produced a series of frescoes in the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara, Italy.  The other story, relates to a teenage girl called George whose mother has just died and who is left struggling to make sense of her death with her younger brother and her emotionally disconnected father.

The book was published in such a way that readers might either begin with Francesco or with George. My copy opened with the Italian artist and I was immediately captivated. (see my review here ). But I know quite a number of bloggers whose opinion I value didn’t rate the book at all.

How to Be Both was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize but the prize went instead to the Australian author Richard Flanagan with The Narrow Road to the Deep North. 

The Narrow Road

This was such a superb book that I’ve struggled to write a review that would do it justice. It’s one of the few Booker prize winners that I want to re-read.

This is a novel set in the context of one of the most infamous episodes in World War 2: the construction of the Thailand-Burma Death Railway. At the heart of Flanagan’s novel is an Australian surgeon, Dorrigo Evans, who to his astonishment becomes something of a legend for his wartime courage at a Japanese POW camp on the Death Railway. The novel ends with an encounter between Evans and one of those captors.

A similar encounter takes place in  The Railway Man  by Eric Lomax.

The Railway Man

This is an autobiography in which  Lomax relates his experiences as a prisoner of war during World War II during which he was forced to work on construction of the help Thai-Burma Railway.  The book won the NCR Book Award (until it closed in 1997 it was the major UK award for non-fiction) and became a film starring Colin Firth.

A later winner of the prize was another of my all-time favourites – Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang.

Wild Swans

This is a family history spans more than a century of China’s history told through the  lives of three female generations of Chang’s family.   Chang’s mother was a member of Mao’s Red Army while Chang herself willingly joined Red Guards though she recoiled from some of their brutal actions.

As time progresses, life under Mao and his Cultural Revolution became more difficult and dangerous, causing immense suffering.  Parts of the book are heart-wrenching as we learn of citizens rallying to a call for metal so it could be turned into weapons, giving up their cooking pots and pans to avoid being denounced by the regime.

My fourth book also recounts times of hardship for the peasants of China.

thegoodearth

 

The Good Earth by Pearl S Buck (my review is here ) is a tale of the fluctuating fortunes of two families: the peasant farmer Wang Lung and his wife O-lan and the rich, wealthy House of Hwang headed by The Old Lord and the Old Mistress. His land is the essence of Lung’s being. When the harvests fail and his family have no more grain or rice to eat, they move to the city  where they are reduced to living in a makeshift hut . But Lung always dreams of returning to his land.

The novel won Buck the Pulitzer Prize and was a key factor in her award of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938 “for her rich and truly epic descriptions of peasant life in China and for her biographical masterpieces. 

That accolade of “biographical masterpiece” from the members of the Swedish Academy could equally apply to my next choice: Samuel Pepys – The Unequaled Self by Claire Tomalin. 

Pepys

Pepys’ story is an extraordinary one: his origins were humble (he was a tailor’s son) but he became one of the most wealthy and powerful government figures in England in the seventeenth century. He’s most famed of course for his diaries in which he described his daily domestic routine and gave us an account of landmark events such as the Great Fire of London.

Tomalin does a superb job of bringing the man to life, weaving extracts from his diary into details from contemporary letters and official court documents. I read this seven years ago and still remember some of the episodes she relates. (my review is here)

Pepys loved hearing gossip. He also loved to collect books. In his will, made shortly before his death in 1708, he bequeathed his vast library to Magdalene College, Oxford. It remains there to this day.

Not on the same scale as Pepys but the final book in my chain was written by another avid ‘collector’.

Howards End

The author Susan Hill lives in an old and rambling farmhouse full of cosy fireside nooks and aged beams. It’s also full of bookcases overflowing with books. Howards End is on the Landing ( see my review here)recounts the year she decided to ‘repossess’ these books.  For a year she read only those books already occupying a space in her shelves (or on the floor), foregoing the purchase of anything new.

Would that I were disciplined not to buy new books until I had read the old. But my experiment with restraint lasted only a few months.


Six Degrees of Separation  #6Degrees is a monthly meme hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. The idea is to begin with one book title, and then make a chain of six other books.  I’ve made one rule for myself – all the books in the chains I create are ones I have read though not necessarily reviewed. I never cease to be astonished at the level of variety across all the bloggers who take part in this meme.

Reading Horizons: Episode 17

Reading Horizons, 10 April 2019

What are you currently reading?

I have three books on the go at the moment.

Zola and the Victorians by Eileen Horne

Zola and Victorians

In 1888, the works of Emile Zola were denounced in the House of Commons in London as “vile” and “diabolical”. Zola’s novels were – according to Samuel Smith of the National  Smith – sold to “young girls in low bookshops”, leading directly to prostitution.  Zola’s British publisher, Henry Vizetelly, was subsequently prosecuted and imprisoned, his health suffered and he was ruined financially.

Horne’s book reconstructs the events using  court records, Hansard transcripts, letters, journalism. It’s a fascinating topic but I so wish Horne had done a better job of creating dialogue between the various members of the Vitzelly family.

One Woman Walks Wales by Ursula Martin

One Woman Walks Wales

This is an extraordinary account of Ursula Martin’s decision to walk through Wales to raise awareness of ovarian cancer.

She initially set out to do a route that she could cover the six months between hospital appointments for check ups after her own treatment four years earlier. But she miscalculated and ended up walking around 3,700 miles. It took her 538 days on her own most of the time. Camping in the wild most nights (without a tent). Without equipment to make a hot meal.

I’ve reached only day two of her journey and already I’m thinking she must be crazy. But also far braver and more determined than me.  I know she made it because this year she was trekking through Romania. In the snow.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

american marriage

This is my book club selection for April. I wasn’t jumping for joy when I heard this had been selected. Not that I knew anything about the book, it was just the title that was off-putting.

But I’m pleasantly surprised by this tale of a couple whose life together is severed when he is accused and imprisoned for a crime they both know he did not commit.

This was an Oprah Book Club title in 2018 and apparently one of Barack Obama’s best books of 2018.

What did you recently finish reading? 

Dignity by Alys Conran

Dignity

I enjoyed Alys Conran’s debut novel Pigeon (see my review here) which won the Wales Book of the Year award in 2017. Her latest novel Dignity which was published at the beginning of April, is I think just as good.

It’s a tale of three women: Evelyn, an engineer’s wife in British India; Magda, an old lady stuck in an empty house; and Susheela, a young English carer of Bengali descent in a British seaside town on the verge of collapse. Review coming soon……

What do you think you’ll read next?

 I had this idea last week where I would identify the categories of books I like to/want to read, and then make my next reading choice based on a cycle of those categories.  So I’d read a classic, say, then a book in translation, followed by a Welsh author, a prize winner, crime fiction or a ‘new this year’ book.  I didn’t include non fiction since I tend to read those simultaneously with a work of fiction.

This sounded a good idea at the time but then the doubts began to creep in. Does it feel too rigid, not spontaneous enough. What if I’m not in the mood for that particular category?

And then I challenged myself: who says you have to stick 100% to that cycle? It’s your plan so you get to make up the rules.

Rule number 1: if I don’t feel in the mood for a particular category at the time, I can skip to the next category in the sequence. For example if I really don’t fancy a translated book, I can skip to a Welsh author……

Rule number 2: There isn’t one. There is only one rule. No sense in making this a burden.

All of this is a long winded answer to a simple question: what am I thinking of reading next? I don’t know exactly what I’ll read next. All I can say is that since I’ve just read a book in translation (Emile Zola’s The Kill), and then a Welsh author (Alys Conran), it will either be a prize winner or – if none of those take my fancy, a crime novel….


WWWednesday is hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words. It involves answering 3 questions:

The three Ws are:

What are you currently reading?

What did you recently finish reading?

What do you think you’ll read next?

In celebration of Emile Zola

zoladdiction2019It’s the start of #ZolaAddiction2019, a month long celebration of the master of literature who put French contemporary society under the spotlight. That might sound rather dull and ‘worthy’ but in fact Emile Zola’s novels contain a high level of sensationalism. It’s impossible to read many of his novels without encountering rather a lot of sex and violence.

To mark the occasion I thought I’d give you a peek at my stack of Zola novels. They are all part of his Rougon-Macquart cycle of twenty novels  which features two branches of a family over five generations. One branch are the respectable (ie legitimate) Rougons; the other are disreputable (illegitimate) Macquarts. Through them Zola traces the “environmental” influences of violence, alcohol, and prostitution which became more prevalent during the second wave of the Industrial Revolution.

My first encounter with Monsieur Zola came via Germinal: a stunningly powerful novel about industrial strife in the mining towns of northern France. I’ve read five more of his novels and haven’t yet been disappointed. But Germinal still remains my favourite.

These are the titles I’ve read so far.

Zola novels read

 

I have another six titles in the cycle waiting to be read.

Zola novels to read

Nana is probably the best known among these titles. It tells the story of Nana Coupeau’s rise from streetwalker to high-class prostitute. Like many of the other titles in this series, it was an instant hit with readers.  In 1879, Le Voltaire, the French newspaper,  launched a gigantic advertising campaign to highlight its forthcoming publication of the story in instalments. It raised the curiosity of the reading public to a fever pitch. When the novel was published in book form the following year,  the first edition of 55,000 copies was sold out in one day.

I try to buy Oxford World Classics editions, published by Oxford University Press, wherever possible. Not only are the covers of the most recent editions, ultra pleasing on the eye but they come with excellent introductions. Sadly not all of the 20 novels are available in these editions. I think in fact there are only four other titles from the OUP so I’m going to have to ration my reading and hope, by the time I get through this half dozen, the powers that be at the OUP will have pulled their fingers out and published some more….


#Zolaaddiction2019 is hosted by FandaClassicLit blog.

 

Frustrations of a book buyer in New Zealand

Kaikoura

Stunning scenery in The South Island, New Zealand. But where oh where are the books????

As I headed for my long holiday through New Zealand and Australia, the burning question was not how many pairs of shorts to pack, but how many books I could reasonably take with me.

The tight baggage allowances for some of my shorter flights was one consideration. The other was the knowledge I’d have lug all these books around for weeks.

Friends who have travelled extensively in the region assured me I’d have no problem buying new books en route. Although the prices tend to be a lot higher than in the UK, second hand bookshops are plentiful and many coffee shops have used books on sale they said.

Reassured I wouldn’t be left high and dry, and viewing this holiday as a chance to expand my horizons and discover new authors, I decided to limit my bookish companions to just three physical books:

Last Man in the Tower by Arvind Adiga

Bookman, Anna Burns Booker prize winning novel

Sixteen Trees of the Somme by Lars Myerling

In the event my trek around Australia never materialised (but that’s another story).

The promised paradise of book supplies never materialised either.

Our first stopping point was the popular coastal resort of Whitianga. No bookstore in sight. The nearest we got was this display of used books – they’d obviously been in the sun for many weeks.  Even I wasn’t that desperate (they had nothing to appeal anyway).

books for saleJPG

Two stops later, we reached Lake Taupo, another popular location for tourists. Things started to look up when the owner of the motel we stayed in mentioned he had shelves full of books other guests had left behind. He almost begged me to take them.

Unfortunately they were rather a sad collection of discarded travel guides (a few years out of date), light romances and crime. Every blockbuster crime writer was in evidence.  Clearly this is what travellers like to read …

Despite drinking more flat whites than I’ve drunk in my life, I never did find a coffee shop with a bookshelf of used books for sale.

By the time we got to what proved to be our final destination, the large town of Nelson in the South Island, I was down to my last paperback (Sixteen Trees of the Somme). I still had plenty of options on the e-reader but I really wanted the feeling of turning pages.

Nelson did have three bookshops: two chains and one independent. I headed to them in great excitement, equipped with a list of New Zealand authors I picked up at the local library.

What a disappointment to find hardly any of these authors on sale. Most of the books being promoted were by authors from outside the southern hemisphere in fact (crime fiction was once again much in evidence. )

It was a shock to find that books in New Zealand are very expensive –  a good 30% higher than prices in the UK.  As an example, I bought my copy of Milkman in the UK for £7.99 (about 17 New Zealand dollars). In New Zealand, it was on sale for 30 New Zealand dollars. Most novels in fact were in that price range and even higher. They were not hardback editions, they were what I call ‘airport edition’ size – so a soft cover but a larger format.  I’m not surprised to find that book sales are falling in New Zealand.

Volume Bookshop New Zealand

Volume: independent bookstore in Nelson, New Zealand

I got into an interesting conversation on the pricing issue with Thomas, one of the co-owners of Volume, a delightful independent bookshop in what’s called the city’s Bohemian Quarter. Prices are apparently high because the market in New Zealand is small (the whole country has a population only just over four million) so print runs are low, and thus publishers don’t get the benefits of economies of scale. Many books are printed outside the country, so prices have to include transport costs. Plus, books in New Zealand (unlike those in the UK ) are not exempt from the sales tax.

I heard a different side to this issue from Lisa at ANZLitlovers – the real issue in Lisa’s view is that New Zealand publishers don’t aggressively market their wares outside of the country. Not even to their near neighbours, Australia (population 25million). What a missed opportunity…

This helps explain why I struggled to think of any New Zealand authors ahead of my trip; if they don’t get promoted to potential readers on their near doorstep, they’re hardly going to be making an effort to get them known in the UK.

I know what you’re wondering …. did I buy anything?

The New ShipsWell yes I did, but I was restrained. I bought just one book: The New Ships by Kate Duigan. It’s been shortlisted for the New Zealand Book Awards 2019. It’s a layered family history narrated by Peter Collie, a partner in a prestigious  law firm. Set in Wellington, New Zealand, it moves to London, Europe and the Indian subcontinent as Collie tries to make sense of his past.

I was tempted by another of the award contenders: The Cage by Lloyd Jones but I had already read one of his novels previously, Mr Pip which was published in 2006 whereas reading Duigan  would be a new experience. Anyway it seems I can get The Cage for a reasonable price in the UK so may well end up buying that at some point.

If anyone is interested, the New Zealand authors whose names were given to me by a helpful librarian were:

  • Eleanor Catton (winner of the Booker Prize with The Luminaries)
  • Keri Hulme (winner of the Booker Prize with The Bone People)
  • Lloyd George (author of Mr Pip)
  • Ngaio Marsh
  • Janet Frame
  • Witi Tame Ihimaera
  • Maurice Gee
  • Elizabeth Knox
  • Patricia Grace

If you know any of these writers and have a recommendation, do let me know. I’ll try and get them from a UK supplier (the chances of my library stocking them are very slim).

 

 

 

 

Reading Horizons: Episode 16

Reading Horizons: 20 March 2019

What are you currently reading?

The Kill (La Curée) by Émile Zola

I’m long overdue a return to the world of the Rougon-Macquart families as depicted in Émile Zola’s 20-volume  series. April 1 sees the start of  an annual event of reading all works related to Émile Zola – which has given me the impetus to pick up The Kill. This is the second novel in the series and deals with the lives of the extremely wealthy Nouveau Riche in Paris in the mid nineteenth century, laying bare their lust for power and money.  Zola describes this period as

… a time when the rush for spoils filled a corner of the forest with the yelping of hounds,, the cracking of whips, the flaring of torches. The appetites let loose were satisfied at last, shamelessly, amid the sound of crumbling neighbourhoods and fortunes made in six months. The city had become an orgy of gold and money.

It’s got off to a terrific start with some lengthy descriptive passages showing the excesses of the Second Empire (middle of the nineteenth century).

What did you recently finish reading? 

Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

I’ve seen a number of comments in the blogosphere that Setterfield’s book is rather slow and overly long. That wasn’t my reaction at all. Even though it contained some mythical elements, which usually are a turn off, I thought this was a terrific story.  Review to follow soonish….

What do you think you’ll read next?

Dignity

I have an advance copy of the latest novel by Alys Conran that I’d like to read soon (it’s published on April 4). I thoroughly enjoyed her debut novel Pigeon (see my review here) which won the Wales Book of the Year award in 2017. Her new novel Dignity is a story of three women: Evelyn, an engineer’s wife in British India; Magda, an old lady stuck in an empty house; and Susheela, a young English carer of Bengali descent in a British seaside town on the verge of collapse.

Also vying for attention are two works of non fiction, both of which were Christmas presents: Michelle Obama’s memoir Becoming  and The Salt Path by Raynor Winn, a memoir of a couple who lose their farm and home when the husband gets a diagnosis of a terminal illness. With nothing left, they make an impulsive decision to walk the 630 miles of the sea-swept South West Coast Path, from Somerset to Dorset, through Devon and Cornwall.

Reading Horizons is linked to WWWednesday, a meme  hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words. It involves answering 3 questions:

The three Ws are:

What are you currently reading?

What did you recently finish reading?

What do you think you’ll read next?

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