Category Archives: Sample Saturday

Sample Sunday: Off To The Antipodes

Saturday disappeared in a blur of cooking and cleaning in preparation for a family visit ‚Äď the first since the pandemic hit the UK. So Sample Saturday has morphed into Sample Sunday – lucky me that both days begin with the same letter of the alphabet. I’d have been in a mess otherwise ūüôā

This week sample is of three books all by authors from what we northerners call The Antipodes: Australia and New Zealand.

This Mortal Boy by Fiona Kidman

This novel explores the story behind the real-life death of Albert Black, one of the last people to be executed in in New Zealand.

Black, known as the ‘jukebox killer’, was only twenty when he was convicted of murdering another young man in a fight at a milk bar in in 1955. His crime fuelled growing moral panic about teenagers.

Kidman asks whether this case was indeed the result of juvenile delinquency or was it a reaction to outsiders ‚Äď Black had migrated to New Zealand to get away from an impoverished childhood in Belfast, Ireland. Or was the young man simply unfortunate enough to fall in with the wrong crowd in Aukland.

I first heard of this book from Lisa at ZNZLitLovers who thought it “rivetting” and then found an interview in which Fiona Kidman explained the inspiration for the novel.

The Verdict: Definitely One To Keep

Remembering Babylon  by David Malouf

David Malouf won the inaugural International Dublin Literary Prize in 1996 with this novel. It was also shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the Miles Franklin Award.

Malouf’s tale focuses on a young English cabin boy, Gemmy Fairley, who is abandoned in Australia. He is raised by a group of aborigines but when white settlers reach the area, he attempts to move back in the world of Europeans. To them, Gemmy is a force that both fascinates and repels. The boy is also unsettled by his identity and place in this new world.

The few pages I’ve sampled give a really good sense of the way the novel reflects the clash of cultures and the fear of the unknown. I have a feeling this is going to be a superb book.

The Verdict: Keep

The New Ships by Kate Duigan

It’s back to New Zealand for my final choice. I hadn’t heard of this author but I went into an independent bookshop in Nelson, New Zealand, determined not to return home to the UK without at least one book by a local author in my suitcase.

After a long and delightful discussion with the shop owner (a patient man) I settled on The New Ships.

It’s the most contemporary of the three books sampled this week, being set shortly after the fall of the Twin Towers.

It concerns Peter Collie, a lawyer who feels adrift following his wife’s death. His attempts to understand the direction of his life, lead him to the past and the days when he was a backpacker in Amsterdam. His girlfriend in those days give birth to a daughter who died at just six weeks old. Or so Peter was given to understand. But now he is not so sure she did die. His attempt to find the truth takes him across London, Europe and the Indian sub continent.

I’m getting the impression the book considers not only the response to grief but how the choices we make or do not make, ultimately shape our lives.

No doubt about my decision on this one.

The Verdict: Keep!

Unusually, I’ve decided to keep all three featured books. The TBR is thus staying at its current level but that’s ok – the objective of Sample Saturday isn’t to get rid of books, but to make sure my shelves are full only with books I do want to read. What do you think of the decisions I’ve reached – if you’ve read any of these books I’d love to hear from you.

Sample Saturday: Around The World

When I embarked on my World of Literature project back in 2013, I began to seek out books by authors from countries I had never experienced previously.

Some were recommended by work colleagues. Luckily I worked for a multinational company so every time we had a face-to-face meeting or I had to visit one of our overseas offices, I would ask for recommendations. It was a great ice-breaker and my colleagues were delighted that someone was taking an interest in their culture. Some of the books I read that came from those recommendations were superb ‚Äď without my colleagues’ help I wouldn’t have enjoyed Amelie Nothomb (Belgium) or the magnificently named Joachim Maria Machado de Assis (Brazil).

I had more moderate success with books I bought as a result of internet searches ‚Äď they often turned out to be real duds (like Full Circle by the Congolese author Frederick Yamusangie).

I’m hoping none of the three books featured in today’s Sample Saturday are duds but maybe they are not worth keeping on my shelves. Let’s see if you agree with my thoughts on which to keep and witch to ditch.

The Blood Of Flowers by Anita Amirrezvani

This is the first of two books by Iran-born Anita Amirrezvani. She left the country to settle in the USA when her parents separated. She returned to Iran during her gap year, her visit coinciding with the 1978 Islamic Revolution. She is now back in USA where she teaches writing and literature to college and master’s degree students.

The Blood Of Flowers follows a young village girl who is cast on the mercy of relatives when her father dies and her hopes of marriage dwindle. Her future improves when she reveals a talent for designing carpets, an invaluable skill in seventeenth century Iran. But a disastrous act causes her downfall.

The setting and cultural context are drawing me towards this book.

The Verdict: Keep

The Hour Of The Star by Clarice Lispector

I opened this slim book to discover a receipt which shows I bought it in the Oxfam shop in Oxford in November 2013. It was one of two purchases in the store that day ‚Äď now I’m puzzling what the other book could be…

Clarice Lispector is described in this Open University edition as “one of the half-dozen irreplaceable Portuguese-language writers of this century.” She has an interesting multicultural background – born of Jewish descent in the Ukraine, she was raised in Brazil and then travelled extensively with her diplomat husband.

The Hour Of The Star was published in 1977, shortly before the author’s death from cancer. It focuses on a young woman who lives in the slums of Rio de Janeiro where she ekes out a living as a typist. But, according to what I’ve read about this book, the narrative is a lot more complex than that summary indicates.

Just to give you an example, this is how the book begins:

Everything in the world began with a yes. One molecule said yes to another molecule and life was born. But before prehistory there was the prehistory of prehistory and there was the never and there was the yes. It was ever so, I do not know why, but I do know that the universe never began.

Clearly this is not a book to read when I’m feeling sleepy. It needs full attention. It’s a mere 75 pages long so I might give it a whirl

The Verdict: Keep

Black Mamba Boy by Nadifa Mohamed

Of the three books I’m featuring this week, this is the one that appeals most.

Nadifa Mohamed left her home in Somalia for what was meant to be a temporary stay in the UK. But war broke out in Somalia so they remained in the UK and never returned.

Black Mamba Boy is Mohamed’s debut novel, a semi-autobiographical account of her father’s life in¬†Yemen¬†and his trek through¬†Sudan,¬†Egypt,¬†Palestine¬†and the¬†Mediterranean. In the novel, a ten year old boy who has grown up in the slums of Aden, decides his only chance of survival is to find his father who disappeared years earlier. And so begins his epic journey by foot, camel, lorry and train.

Though it’s a story of one individual, the theme of exile and survival gives it far greater significance at a time when we continue to see images of refugees risking their lives to find a new home.

The book won the 2010¬†Betty Trask Award and was shortlisted for the 2010¬†Guardian¬†First Book Award and long-listed for the 2010¬†Orange Prize for Fiction. Mohamed was chosen as one of¬†Granta¬†magazine’s “Best of Young British Novelists” in 2013.

No doubt about my decision on this one.

The Verdict: Keep!

For the first time since I started the Sample Saturday series, I’m keeping all three featured books. The TBR is thus staying at its current level but that’s ok – the objective of Sample Saturday isn’t to get rid of books, but to make sure my shelves are full only with books I do want to read. What do you think of the decisions I’ve reached – if you’ve read any of these books I’d love to hear from you.

Sample Saturday: 3 historical fiction novels

I need your help to decide whether to keep three historical fiction novels I have had on my “owned but unread” shelves for more than five years.

As a reminder, Sample Saturday is where I look at all the books I own but have yet to read, and decide which I should part company with and which I should keep.

The Resurrectionist by James Bradley

Published in 2006, this novel is set in London in 1826 in a world of the resurrectionists who steal bodies for anatomists. The blurb says the main character finds himself in “London’s underworld, a place where everything and everyone is for sale, and where the taking of a life is easier than it might seem.”

It has an average rating of 2.8 stars on Goodreads with reviews that describe it as muddled with no real character development and only a sketchy plot. Although Goodreads ratings can’t always be relied upon, I’m not enthused by a novel that apparently jumps about without explanation,

The Verdict: Abandon

Winter In Madrid by C J Sansom

My first experience of C J Sansom was via his historical crime series featuring the hunchback lawyer Matthew Shardlake. Though some of the plot devices were highly implausible I did love the way Sansom depicted the power struggles and religious divisions of Tudor England.

His alternative history novel Dominion was less enjoyable. It was grounded in solid research (Sansom has a PhD in history) but unfortunately the novel was spoiled by clunky characters and uninspiring dialogue.

So now I am wondering whether Winter in Madrid is going to a repeat of the Dominion experience or will it be more akin to the Shardlake series. It’s a more contemporary historical period (the Spanish civil war ) and is a spy novel rather than mystery/crime.

I’m tempted to keep this because of the period and geographic setting. It takes place in 1940 when Madrid lies in ruins after the end of the Spanish civil war. The population is starving and there is a threat of a German invasion.

This is a long book at more than 600 pages so it’s going to have to be good to warrant the investment of time.

The Verdict: Keep

The Absolutist by John Boyne

“If you loved Birdsong, you’ll love this” is the message on the cover of my copy of The Absolutist. Well, I did love the Sebastian Faulks novel but I’m also wary of promotional messages that piggy back on the success of another novel.

What do the two books have in common? They’re both set during World War 1, are partly set in the trenches of France and involve “forbidden” love. The Absolutist depicts a relationship between two soldiers, who train in the army together in England and are dispatched to the fields of Flanders in the same squad. But then they find themselves on opposite sides of an issue of conscience.

The reviewer at The Guardian was less than enthusiastic about the novel, thinking it lacking in detail but Goodread reviewers have generally been more enthusiastic. I’m thinking it’s worth giving it a go.

The Verdict: Keep

So that’s one fewer book on the TBR shelves this week. What do you think of the decisions I’ve reached – if you’ve read any of these books I’d love to hear from you.

Sample Saturday: 3 eBooks

My Sample Saturday spotlight this week is turned on three books that are languishing on my eReader.

As a reminder, Sample Saturday is where I look at all the books I own but have yet to read, and decide which I should part company with and which I should keep.

I used to read a fair number of ebooks, not because I enjoyed the experience, but simply because they were much more convenient to take with me on work trips overseas. Now I’m retired, I no longer have to worry about carrying heavy books with me. Consequently, my list of unread ebooks just gets longer and longer.

These three books were all bought more than five years ago.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

Who is the real Elena Ferrante? That was the big question a few years ago, a mystery that no doubt helped sales of her (or should that be his?) “Neopolitan Quartet”. My Brilliant Friend is the first of the quartet, a coming of age story of two best friends from their early life in a poor neighbourhood of Naples. .

The relationship aspect of the story wasn’t the attraction for me. I was more interested in the Italian setting. It was simply an excuse to reminisce about holidays from long ago. and are likewise the embodiments of a nation undergoing momentous change. But I’ve never even opened the book and now that a return trip to Italy looks increasingly unlikely this year, the book has lost its appeal.

If you’ve read this, do tell me what you thought about it – is it worth reading?

The Verdict: Undecided

Ruby by Cynthia Bond

Picked for Oprah Winfrey’s book club, Ruby is a debut novel about a young girl who tries to escape the suffocating atmosphere of her small community in Texas. Forced to return she relives the abuse she once suffered. Is she strong enough to survive in a town that wants to destroy her?

It sounds like a powerful novel. I’ve seen it described as “Utterly transfixing, with unforgettable characters, riveting suspense, and breathtaking, luminous prose, Ruby offers an unflinching portrait of man‚Äôs dark acts and the promise of the redemptive power of love.”

The one thing holding me back is that it apparently contains some elements of magical realism. That’s not usually my kind of thing but I’m going to take a chance on this one.

The Verdict: Keep

Satin Island by Tom McCarthy

I have this book purely because it was on the Booker shortlist in 2015, a time when I liked to read a few of the contenders. But I never got around to it, finding it hard to summon up enthusiasm for a book described as “Semi-random musings on various oddities of modern life.”

It’s hard to find a coherent summary of what this book is about. My best attempt would be that Satin Island is about a person named U who researches products and services from an anthropological view and deduces meanings from his research. It’s not a book of events or page-turning plot; more of a collection of random thoughts and ideas.

It sounds dreadful. 

The Verdict: Discard

So that’s one fewer book on the TBR shelves this week. Maybe two depending on your insight about the Elena Ferrante.

Sample Saturday: Translated fiction

My Sample Saturday spotlight this week is turned on three books that made their way onto my TBR shelves from Japan, Peru and Iceland.

As a reminder, Sample Saturday is where I look at all the books I own but have yet to read, and decide which I should part company with and which I should keep.

The Discreet Hero by Mario Vargas Llosa

I’ve had mixed experiences with novels by South American authors. I loved The Armies by Colombian author Evelio Rosero Diago but struggled with his countryman, Gabriel Garc√≠a M√°rquez. Dom Casmurro by the exotically-named Brazilian author Joaquin Maria Machado de Assis was a hoot but Isabelle Allende didn’t knock my socks off.

I’ve never read any Peruvian authors however, which is how I came to own The Discreet Hero by Mario Vargas Llosa. It’s the sixteenth novel written by this past winner of the Novel Prize in Literature and is described as “engaging tale of two men who find themselves under threat.”

Here’s the synopsis from the back cover:

The Discreet Hero follows two honourable rebels: a small businessman who finds himself the victim of blackmail; and the successful owner of an insurance company who plans to avenge himself against the two lazy sons who want him dead so they can claim their inheritance. With the love and support of the women in their lives, these two men are willing to risk everything to try and seize control of their destinies. ..

I’ve read a few pages from the beginning of the book which begins with the arrival of the blackmail threat. It’s written in a very fluid style and since the synopsis sounds interesting, I’m planning to keep this one.

The Verdict: Keep

The Sorrow of Angels by Jón Kalman Stefánsson

When I took this book off the shelves I discovered inside, the delivery note which tells me that I bought it in 2015. I have no idea why i wanted it but it may have been that I saw the author’s name on another blog site.

Immediately I see a problem: the back cover tells me that this is the second in a trilogy. Did I not know that when I bought the book or did I know it but was given to understand you didn’t have to have read book one in order to enjoy book two??

Here’s the synopsis from the back cover:

As the villagers gather in the inn to drink schnapps and coffee with the boy reads to them, Jens the postman stumbles in half dead, having almost frozen to his horse. On his next journey to the wide, open fjords he is accompanied by the boy. Both will risk their lives for each other, and for an unusual delivery.

So that sounds like a stand alone story. But a review in The Independent makes it clear that the trilogy follows the boy’s life. In book one he survives a fishing trip that led to his friend’s death, book two takes him on perilous expedition “that in its elemental terrors and existential challenges recalls a Nordic version of one of Cormac McCarthy’s journeys. ” It seems futile just to dive in with book 2 and thus missing out on some formative elements in the boy’s character. I could, of course, buy part one but the association with McCarthy was the deciding factor ‚Äď if Stefansson’s book is anything like The Road, I know it will not be to my taste.

The Verdict: Abandon

The Decay of The Angel by Yukio Mishima

Another balls-up on my part. The Decay of The Angel is the final part of The Sea of Fertility tetralogy and I’ve not read, nor do I own, the first three books.

I must have been half asleep when I bought this book because it quite clearly says on the cover that it’s the final part of the tetralogy. They are all connected via the central character of Shigekuni Honda, who is a law student in book one (Spring Snow) and a wealthy retired judge in The Decay of the Angel. Each of the novels depicts what Honda comes to believe are successive reincarnations of his schoolfriend and his attempts to save them from the early deaths to which they seem to be condemned by karma.

I can’t see any value in reading just this book but the question is whether I want to read all the earlier ones too? Has anyone read this tetralogy and can give me a view? I’ve seen it described variously as “mesmerising” and emotionally and intellectually limited,

The Verdict: Awaiting Opinions

So that’s one fewer book on the TBR shelves this week. Maybe two depending on your insight about the Yukio Mishima.

Sample Saturday: Bargain Shop Buys

My Sample Saturday spotlight this week is turned on three books on my TBR shelves that I bought in charity shops or bargain book shops. They still all bear their price stickers…..

As a reminder, Sample Saturday is where I look at all the books I own but have yet to read, and decide which I should part company with and which I should keep.

My Revolutions by Hari Kunzru

I bought this in a discount book shop in Michigan during one of my frequent work trips. I knew the name of Hari Kunzru as one of Granta’s¬†“Best of Young British Novelists” , chosen in the same year the accolade was awarded to Zadie Smith and Monica Ali. When I saw this priced at $2 it seemed too good to miss the opportunity to experience a “new British talent”.

Here’s the synopsis from the back cover:

Chris Carver is living a lie. His wife, their teenage daughter and everyone in their circle know him as Michael Frame, suburban dad. They have no idea that as a radical student in the sixties he briefly became a terrorist ‚Äď protestin the Vietnam War by setting bombs around London. And then one day a ghost from his past turns up on his doorstep, forcing Chris on the run …

I’ve read a few pages from the beginning of the book which takes place on Chris/Michael’s 50th birthday. While his family are out collecting stuff for his party, he hurriedly packs his clothes and passport and drives off in his car. Clearly the narrative is going to wind back to a surprise encounter with a person from his past.

I notice from the author’s explanation that the book is loosely based on some revolutionary underground movements active in London in the 1970s. It’s a topic I don’t know much about but I’m interested enough to keep this on the shelves.

The Verdict: Keep

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

A charity shop purchase made the year after I read (and loved) her novel Bel Canto (the link takes you to my review). I don’t know anything about the book other than it was shortlisted for the Orange Prize in 2012.

Here’s the synopsis from the back cover:

Among the tangled waterways and giant anacondas of the Brazilian Rio Negro, an enigmatic scientist is developing a drug that could alter the lives of women for ever. But Dr Annick Swenson’s work is shrouded in mystery ‚Äď especially from her investors. When Anders Eckman, a mild-mannered lab researcher is sent to investigate, a curt letter reporting his death is all that returns. Now Marina Singh, Anders’s colleague and former student of Dr Swenson, must retrace her friends perilous steps and uncover the secrets hidden among the remotest tribes of the rainforest.

It sounds promising; I’m drawn by the idea of a quest and the culture clash in the rainforest. I just hope that anacondas don’t make much of an appearance since I have an aversion to snakes…

The Verdict: Keep

Bad Dirt by Annie Proux

The cheapest book of the three, it’s also the one where I’m struggling to understand why I wanted to add it to my bookshelves. I’ve only ever read The Shipping News by her and while I enjoyed it at the time, it didn’t leave me feeling I was keen to read anything else she has written.

It’s a book apparently set in a community in Wyoming, where she has made her home. I clearly bought it thinking it was a novel but it wasn’t until the very end of the back cover blurb that I now see its a collection of short stories.

They are about a set of characters who live in “an isolated expanse of wasters and dreamers where the inhabitants say there’s no place like home. Where men grow bears competitively and where Bible classes wonder ‘What kind of furniture would Jesus pick?”

It sounds as if it could too easily veer towards caricature for my taste. Plus, since I am not a fan of short stories at all, I know it not one for me. I don’t feel too bad about letting this one go ‚Äď it cost me all of ¬£1.

The Verdict: Abandon

So that’s one fewer book on the TBR shelves again this week. Thanks to everyone who weighed in last week on my question about whether to keep The Accidental by Ali Smith – you persuaded me to let it remain for now.

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