Category Archives: #20books of summer

Reading horizons: Episode 22

Reading Horizons: September 2019

What I’m reading now

I’ve just started a book that was an international best seller in 2018. I’m honestly not sure I want to read this but it was loaned by a friend so I feel obliged to at least give it a try. Whether I finish it remains to be seen.

The subject matter alone makes The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris, a challenging book. It’s described as the ‘true’ story of how a Slovakian Jew fell in love with a girl he was tattooing at the concentration camp. But I’ve also seen articles challenging the accuracy and authenticity of the ‘facts’ presented in the book. And that’s making me feel particularly uncomfortable.

What I just finished reading

Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance was on my #15booksofsummer reading list but I ran out of time. It was going to go back into the bookcase but so many other bloggers commented that it was a wonderful novel, that I changed my mind.

A Fine Balance

I’m really glad I did because this turned out to be exactly the kind of novel I love. It’s a long book – more than 600 pages – but it’s so well written that it just zips along.

A Fine Balance follows four strangers whose lives intersect at a time of political turmoil in India. The government’s declaration of a State of Internal Emergency sparks a wave of arbitrary violence and brutal repression. This is a story of the hopes and dreams of three men and one woman and how they discover friendship in adversity.

What I’ll read next

Now this is never an easy question because I’m such a ditherer.. Right now I have a hankering for a classic so could go for one of the books from my classics club list . When I was having a root around the bookcase a couple of nights ago I came across Vita Sackville-West’s All Passion Spent which was published in 1932.

All Passion Spent

I’ve seen this described as her best and most popular novel, “irreverently funny and surprisingly moving”.  All Passion Spent is the story of an 88 year old, newly widowed woman who refuses to let her children dictate how she spends the rest of her life. I’ve dipped into the book and liked what I found on the first few pages.

It could be interesting to follow this up with something by her friend and lover Virginia Woolf. A re-read of To The Lighthouse is long overdue but I also have The Voyage Out which I’ve never read.

Or I could go down the path of gardens given Sackville-West’s status as a garden designer par excellence. Maybe Elizabeth and Her German Garden by Elizabeth von Arnim would be a fitting companion read.

Invariably I don’t make the decision until right at the moment when I’m ready to start reading something new.


Those are my plans – what’s on your reading horizon for the next few weeks?


This post is for WWW Wednesday hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words.

Reading horizons: Episode 21

Reading Horizons: August 2019

What I’m reading now

Shell by  Kristina Olsson is one of the books on my booksofsummer list which is a virtual ‘holiday’ around the world. 

Shell

Olsson’s novel gives me a reason to visit Australia. I’d planned to be in the country for real earlier this year but had to abandon that part of my trip. I never did get to see Sydney and its most famous building – the Opera House – which features prominently in  Shell. 

The novel is set in 1965; a time of tremendous change in the city. The Opera House is under construction has not met with universal acclaim from politicians and residents. In another unwelcome development, the city’s young men are being conscripted to fight in the Vietnam war. 

Amid the turmoil, a fiercely anti war journalist and a Swedish glassmaker find each other. 

Shell is an ambitious novel that is exquisitely written.

What I just finished reading

In a diversion from my summer reading plans I am enjoying a novel by a Welsh author which is due for publication on September 19, 2019. It’s translated from Welsh by Gwen Davies.

The Jeweller by Carys Lewis reminds me very much of the style of a Virago Classic. It’s the tale of Mari, a market stall holder in a seaside town, who lives alone except for her pet monkey. She surrounds herself with letters discovered while clearing out the houses of the recently dead.

The Jeweller

I’ll have an exclusive extract from this novel to share with you on September 20.

What I’ll read next

I’m hoping I can squeeze in another book from my summer reading list just so that I can say I’ve read 10

Most likely my choice will be A Dry White Season by Andre Brink. This is described on Goodreads as “an unflinching and unforgettable look at racial intolerance, the human condition, and the heavy price of morality.”

I’ve read a number of South African authors but never anything by Brink. This is meant to be his best work of fiction.

I have some library books vying for attention (why do all my reservations arrive at the same time???). The Chain by Adrian McKinty is a crime novel that is getting a lot of attention and praise at the moment. I also have Lammy by Max Porter which is on the Booker Prize longlist and Aftermath by Rhidian Brook, a Welsh author I am embrarrased to say I have yet to read.

Those are my plans – what’s on your reading horizon for the next few weeks?


This post is for WWW Wednesday hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words.

Reading horizons: Episode 20

Reading Horizons: July 2019

What I’m reading now

The Cruelest Month

The Cruelest Month by Louise Penny is book number 5 on my 15booksofsummer list which is a virtual ‘holiday’ around the world. So far I’ve visited Wales (well that wasn’t hard!); Austria, Croatia and the United States.

Penny’s novel gives me a reason to visit Canada.

The Cruelest Month is number three in the series of novels featuring  Inspector Armand Gamache from the Sûreté du Québec. There are 14 novels in the series; the 15th – A Better Man – is due to be published in August 2019.  I’ve read seven of these but not in publication order.

The Cruelest Month is set in spring in the tiny, picture-postcard village of Three Pines. Buds are on the trees and the first flowers are struggling through the newly thawed earth. For some bizarre reason, some of the villagers decide this is a good time to hold a séance at the Old Hadley House, a dilapidated property where nasty things happened years earlier. They are hoping their actions will rid the village its dark past. Of course it all goes wrong and one of the group dies. Was she murdered or did she die of fright. It’s up to Gamache to find the truth.

What I just finished reading

Big Sky _ Kate Atkinson Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote was another from my summer reading list. It’s also on my ClassicsClub reading list.

It’s one of those books that I’d been intending to read for a long, long time. It’s a delightfully atmospheric novella with an unforgettable character whose name Holly Golightly is forever synonymous with Audrey Hepburn who played the starring role in the film version.

I made a temporary deviation from my 15booksofsummer itinerary when my library request came through for Kate Atkinson’s latest novel Big Sky.

It was worth the change of plan as you can see from my very enthusiastic review.  

Of course, now I have been re-introduced to her private eye Jackson Brodie, I ‘m getting an itch to re-read all the earlier books in this series.

What I’ll read next

This is always the hardest question for me because I really dislike planning my reading.

If I continue on the summer reading list, I’m due to visit Jamaica via The Long Song by Andrea Levy.

Levy takes us to her native country in the nineteenth century, a time of slavery and  sugar plantations. Her tale relates the experiences of a young slave girl, July, who lives through through the 1831 Great Jamaican Slave Revolt, and the beginning of freedom.  The Long Song won the Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction and was longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2010.

The reason I’m hesitant is that there are some new acquisitions which are calling to me, including the book that arrived today.

The Prison Book Club

Those are my plans – what’s on your reading horizon for the next few weeks?


This post is for WWW Wednesday hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words.

Alert: An Oddball In The Office [review]

The Room by Jonas Karlsson 

There’s one in every office isn’t there?

The worker who’s something of a misfit.  Who few people want to engage in conversation or join at the coffee machine. The weirdo who has all the social skills of a mosquito. 

In The Room by Jonas Karlsson, Björn is one such misfit. 

The Room by Jonas KarlssonHe’s a new employer at “the Authority.” Exactly what the Authority does is never made clear. All we learn is that it’s a faceless, dull, bureaucratic Government organisation that processes claims. The more complex the claim the bigger its file number becomes and the higher up the building it gets handled. 

Illusions of Grandeur

Björn arrives believing he is special, a cut above everyone else. “ He’d left his last job because “it was way below by abilities.”  (reading between the lines he was ‘persuaded’ to move on). Now it’s time for him to fulfil his true potential. On his first day “The words ‘man of the future’ ran through my head.”

He plans his day and workload meticulously:

I worked out a personal strategic framework. I arrived half an hour early each morning and followed my own timetable for the day: fifty-five minutes of concentrated work, then a five-minute break. Including toilet breaks. I avoided any unnecessary socialising along the way.

He doesn’t endear himself to his colleagues.

But then Björn doesn’t rate them highly either. His nearest colleague has the irritating habit of allowing his paperwork to spill over onto Björn’s desk. Another colleague doesn’t return pencils he’s ‘borrowed’. He receives sloppily written departmental emails. 

It’s all getting too much for Bjorn

Salvation arrives when he discovers “the room”. A small, perfectly equipped and furnished space that becomes his refuge. He finds he can think more clearly, work more quickly, more productively when he’s in the room. He even feels better physically.

There was a full length mirror in the room. I caught sight of myself in it and fancied, to my surprise, that I looked really good. My grey suit fitted better than I thought, and there was something about the way the fabric hung that made me think that the body beneath it was – how can I put it? – virile.

There’s just one problem with this room: Björn is the only person in the Authority who can see it.

It’s not on any layout plans.

There is no door along that wall in the corridor.

His colleagues complain that Björn is acting bizarrely, standing around in a corridor facing a wall. Doing nothing. Just standing.

As Håkan [a colleague] reluctantly explained, for the second time, what he could see in front of him, and stubbornly denied the existence of the room, I realised that I was going to have to be more obvious. I reached out my arm and pointed, so the tip of my forefinger was touching the door. “Door,” I said. He looked at me again with that foolish smile and glazed expression. “Wall,” he said. “Door,” I said. “Wall,” he said.

If you want to know how this all pans out, you’ll have to read The Room for yourself. It will spoil the enjoyment if I gave any more detail of what happens to Björn.

A Multi-Layered Novel

In part Jonas Karlsson’s The Room is a novel that can be read as a comment on today’s work culture reliant so much on protocols and procedures that individuality counts for nothing. Is this a culture where workers feel the need to find a space where they can be themselves?

Karlsson portrays the meaningless rituals and pointless activities that anyone who has worked in an office environment, will enjoy recognising.  This is a world of stand-offs over personal working space,  joke-cluttered noticeboards, untidy desks and frustrations because no-one replaced the photocopier paper tray or the light bulb.

However, on another level, The Room is a humorous tale of an outsider with more than a few strange behavioural traits.  Bjorn’s social ineptitude is hugely funny, more so because the whole tale is told through his myopic view of the world. 

Disturbing Portrait of Disintegration 

And yet there is a deeply unsettling side to this novel. 

Clearly Bjorn is suffering a form of delusional mental illness. When his colleagues take their concerns to the department boss, Bjorn accuses them of mounting a systematic campaign to get rid of him because they feel unsettled.

There’s nothing strange about that, creative people have always encountered resistance. It’s perfectly natural for more straightforward individuals to feel alarmed by someone of talent. ….  one or more individuals have taken it upon themselves to play some sort of psychological trick on me. Instead of coming straight out and having a normal discussion.

The reaction of Bjorn’s colleagues could be viewed as a fairly typical one experienced by people who are individuals, who dare to be different. They think he’s getting preferential treatment by not being made to wear ‘slippers’ in the office instead of his outdoor shoes, or taking frequent work breaks.

They especially don’t like it when he begins to outshine them at work, producing reports (claim assessments) that are exactly the calibre the higher-up big shots want.

But as the novel progresses Bjorn’s erratic behaviour becomes more erratic and serious.  He damages the office ceiling and pulls down the Christmas lights. There’s an implication he forced himself on a female receptionist. He begins acting as if he was the boss.

Reading The Room felt uncomfortable at times. In the middle of a humorous scene you suddenly realise that what you’re seeing is the disintegration of a human being.

It’s a bizarre but fascinating novel.

Footnotes

 Jonas KarlssonJonas Karlsson is a prominent screen and stage actor in his native Sweden. He has published three novels and three short story collections. The Room is the first of his novels to be translated into English. My copy was published by Hogarth, part of the Random House Group, in 2015. Translation is by Neil Smith.

I have no idea how I came by this book. It’s in hardback which is unusual for me so I’m guessing I found it in a second hand shop at a low cost and was intrigued by the synopsis.

It’s on my 15booksofsummer reading list for 2019

Want to know more

  • Foyles has an interview with Jonas Karlsson in which he talks about his reaction to being compared with Frank Kafka and Raymond Carver.
  • Kirkus also has a video interview with the author
  • Eric who blogs at Lonesome Reader has written an excellent review of Jonas Karlsson’s The Room here 

Courage and hope in the midst of war: The Hotel Tito [review]

The Hotel Tito by Ivana Bodroziç

Images of death and destruction in a hitherto little known corner of Europe filled our television screens in the early 1990s.  Week after week saw ever more alarming reports about the thousands of people forced to flee as the Croatian war of independence advanced on their homes.

Croatian war of independence

The Hotel Tito is a novel about that experience of displacement told through the eyes of a young girl.

When war breaks out in 1991 she is nine years old. She is sent from her home town of Vukovar to take a seaside holiday far away from the hostilities.

By the time she returns at the end of summer, everything that was familiar no longer exists.

Her father has disappeared while fighting with the Croatian forces. Her town has become a battle ground fought over with shells and rockets.

It’s not safe to stay in Vukovar so she, her mother and elder brother join a stream of residents who become refugees in Zagreb. But then they are evicted and end up in Kumrovec  – a village near to Zagreb, on the Croatian-Serbian border.

And there they are stuck for three years, sharing a one room apartment in the former Political School (known as  Hotel Tito in homage to the village’s most famous son Josip Tito, former president of Yugoslavia). 

Hotel Tito by Ivana BodrozicLife in Hotel Tito:  a strange existence.

The large conference rooms of the Hotel Tito have been re-assigned to serve the needs of a new type of resident.

Conference Room One is designated as an infirmary, number five is the  church, four is used for daycare.

For the young inhabitants of the hotel, the magical room is number seven; a space designated for parties, card games and social activities.  The front lobby is their rendezvous point for ventures into the local night spots.

Though it might sound like a playground, the hotel is hardly an ideal place in which to live. Naturally the family find it difficult to live in a room so tiny it can only just accommodate three beds. Other families are moved on, to bigger and nicer apartments. Why not them, they want to know?

Battling against officialdom

Petitions and appeals to the government result in promises that new accommodation will be found for them. But the promises never materialise. Nor is there any good news about the missing man.

Believe me, it is much harder for the families of the missing because there are things we can never accept, and the uncertainty is crushing us.

The girl never gives up hoping that one day she will learn her father is alive.

But in the meantime she has to get on with the business of growing up. A process which involves ditching the Barbie dolls and embracing the rites of adolescence: the first disco,  encounters with boys,  experiments with smoking and cocktails and the shock of the first hangover.

This narrator is an intelligent girl with a funny way of looking at life but is also keenly observant.  At the beginning of the book she has limited appreciation of the momentous changes happening in her country.  Although her parents don’t explain why she is being sent to the seaside, she has “a sneaking feeling it has to do with politics because everybody talks about politics all the time.” 

I know a thing or two about politics myself, like I call my toy monkey Meso, because my monkey and our president look a lot alike.

About the Croatian war of independence itself she has little to say other than it’s “cruel and went on for ages.”  She is more focused on the daily challenges of getting around a strange place, making new friends and experiencing the sneers of local people towards  incomers who don’t even know the correct names for basic foodstuffs.

The city was lovely and totally insensitive. They didn’t need us, there were enough people in Zagreb already; they felt that being from Zagreb was a matter of some prestige. … We made the switch to salty rolls but when we said the words they sounded off , always with a twang; when we bought them the baker had a little sneer. Like it was something enormous, not a stupid doughy roll.

Teenage confusion amid the chaos

This is a girl who is full of the anxiety and confusion experienced by teenagers. One moment she suffers acute embarrassment at the drunken antics of her grandfather, the next she feels a deep love for the old man. Desperate to get away from home and experience freedom but nervous about whether she will fit in and find friends in her new school.

Her insight and honesty make reading Hotel Tito a very human novel. It relates the experience of people who are displaced in war. The are in a state of constant anxiety about what is happening “back home” and never feel completely accepted in their new “home.” But it is also very much a novel about the process of growing up.

And like so many bildungsroman novels, despite the tribulations and frustrations experienced by the protagonist, by the end you sense that they have come through the challenge. That they have emerged stronger and with a spirit of optimism and hope for the future.


About the author

Ivana Simić Bodrožić  author of The Hotel TitoIvana Simić Bodrožić was born in Vukovar in 1982 though she has lived in Zagreb for many years.

She published her first poetry collection in 2005, Prvi korak u tamu (The First Step into Darkness) and has since published a second anthology plus a short story collection 100% pamuk (100% Cotton).

About the Book 

Hotel Zagorje (Hotel Tito) was the first prose work by Ivana Simić Bodrožić. It is described as an autobiographical novel. We know that Bodrožić  was in fact displaced from Vukovar and did live for a while in Hotel Tito. But the book reads more like fiction than as a memoir of the Croatian war of independence. I suspect that has much to do with the fluidity of the translation by Ellen Elias-Bursac.

Hotel Tito was published to critical acclaim in 2010. It received the Prix Ulysee for the best debut novel in France, and a number of prestigious  awards in Croatia and the Balkan region.  Bodrožić is currently working on the film adaptation of the novel with Bosnian director Jasmila Žbanić (the winner of Golden Bear 2006, Berlin International Film Festival).

Why I Read This Book

My edition was published by Seven Stories Press. I wouldn’t have known about the book however but for the fact it was chosen by Asymptote for their book club in November 2018.  Including it in my #15booksofsummer list meant I could read my first ever Croatian author. Another country that I’ve now covered as part of my World of Literature challenge.

15 books of summer

Myth and magic in darkest Wales: Ghostbird [Review]

Ghostbird by Carol Lovekin

 

GhostbirdOne thing guaranteed to turn me off a book is the presence of a ghost. I don’t understand the fascination with spectres, phantoms, wraiths or spirits or anything of a supernatural nature. Give me real flesh and blood any time. 

 

Having made that disclosure you are probably now puzzled why my #15BooksofSummer reading list includes a title using one of my dreaded words. Sounds contradictory doesn’t it, especially when you hear that Ghostbird  in fact makes multiple references to the supernatural world?

Ghostbird draws on folklore, for example, particularly the fables found in the collection of medieval Welsh folk tales known as The Mabinogion. Lovekin’s novel also has one female character who is believed to have magical powers and another who is the spirit of a dead child.

 

Not my cup of tea by any stretch of the imagination.

And yet despite all of this I did enjoy reading this book.

 

Magical powers

Ghostbird is a tale set in rural Wales. This is where 14-year-old Cadi Hopkins lives with her mother Violet, a woman who has experienced tragedy in her life. Her eldest daughter drowned in a nearby lake while still a young child and her husband was killed soon after in a road accident. She has withdrawn emotionally from the world, including her surviving daughter.

 

In the neighbouring cottage lives her aunt (Violet’s sister in law), Lili Hopkins, a woman who according to the locals has magical powers just like all the Hopkins women down through the generations. Lili acts as a surrogate mother to Cadi but feels torn between her love for the girl and a promise she made to Violet many years earlier.

 

Women with secrets

All three women have secrets. Secrets that Cadi is determined to unravel because her life is full of gaps and mysteries. Her mother never speaks of the past. There are no photographs of her father in the cottage. Her sister died before she was born so of course Cadi never got to know her. But she doesn’t even know whether her sister’s real name was Dora or Blodeuwedd, a character in The Mabinogion who was turned into an owl. 

Cadi’s quest for knowledge coincides with the beginning of visitations from her dead sister. The girl is undergoing a metamorphosis into a bird, making her presence known through dead leaves and bird feathers. As her transformation progresses she draws Cadi closer to her and further away from Violet and Lili. 

Initially I wasn’t keen on the scenes where we encounter Blodeuwedd’s presence. But by the end of the novel, it became evident they were integral to the novel, acting as a catalyst for the progress Cadi makes towards enlightenment and the start of a new relationship  with her mother. 

Close relationship with nature

The real gem in the novel is how Carol Lovekin represents the women’s relationship with nature. Whether it’s the lake that magnetically draws Cadi to its edges in defiance of her mother’s command or the magical garden lovingly created over decades by the Hopkins women, there is a strong sense of place in this novel.  

Unless you knew what you were looking for it wouldn’t be obvious you were in a witch woman’s garden. … In the lea of the wall, pots of herbs stood on a flat slab of oak: sage and coltsfoot, peppermint and lemon balm. … A mass of clematis, jasmine and honeysuckle tumbled over the walls. In the orders, flower upon flower, marigolds and lavender, cornflowers as blue as heaven. 

Oh for a garden like that…..I’d even put up with a few strange rustlings in the trees or unexpected deposits of feathers in my bedroom. 

 

 


 

Introducing Carol Lovekin 

Carol Lovekin author of GhostbirdCarol Lovekin was born in Warwickshire and has worked in retail, nursing and as a freelance journalist and a counsellor. She is now a full-time writer living in Wales, a country she describes as her adopted home. Carol blogs at Making It Up As I Go Along

Ghostbird was her debut novel, published by Honno in 2016. It was a Guardian Readers’ Choice in 2016 and  longlisted for the Not the Booker Prize (run by The Guardian) in 2016. She is now working on her fourth book.

Why I read Ghostbird

A number of independent presses in Wales had the inspired idea to open a pop up shop in Cardiff in December 2016. Of course I had to visit and of course I had to buy. Ghostbird was recommended by the team from Honno and it had a beautiful cover. It’s been sitting on my shelves since then although I did read Carol’s second novel Snow Sisters in 2017 (see my review here)

When I put together my list of books for #20booksofsummer I knew I wanted to start with a novel from Wales. What a perfect opportunity to read Ghostbird.

15 books of summer

 

 

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