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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.

Kingdom of the Blind by Louise Penny #bookreview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Bookends #10 November 2018

This week’s Bookends post features an author whose books about a fictitious community in Quebec, Canada have become a favourite. I’m also giving you a challenge to name which author you would choose if you could read only one author for the rest of your life.

Book: Kingdom of the Blind by Louise Penny

Louise PennyI’ve posted multiple times in the last few years about Louise Penny and how much I enjoy her series featuring Armand Gamache, Head of Homicide at the Sûreté du Québec.  There is another Gamache novel due out from Little Brown on November 27.

Kingdom of the Blind takes us back to the community of Three Pines, a village so small it barely features on a map. Gamache is called to an abandoned farmhouse outside the village where he discovers that an elderly woman, a stranger, has named him as an executor of her will. The bequests are so wildly unlikely that he suspects the woman must have been delusional – until a body is found, and the terms of the bizarre document suddenly seem far more menacing

But it isn’t the only menace Gamache is facing. In the last novel Glass Houses he was suspended from his role as Chief Superintendent of the Sûreté du Québec, pending an investigation. That investigation has dragged on, and Armand is taking increasingly desperate measures to rectify previous actions.

One thing you can be sure of with  Louise Penny is that this novel will have a strong plot. What interests me far more than that however is the way she has developed the character of her protagonist. He’s a very thoughtful man with a good understanding of human nature (how many other detectives do you find quoting Marcus Aurelius?). He makes mistakes but also has the humility to accept when he is wrong.

Blog Post: Which author could you read for the rest of your life

I wish I could get to the book club meetings that Anne at Cafe Society talks about on her blog because they have such interesting and thought-provoking discussions. In one recent meeting she says “someone asked whom we would choose if we could only read the works of one author for the rest of our lives.” Some choices were inevitable: Dickens and Trollope.

In her recent post, Anne reflected on the criteria for her own selection.

I’ve been thinking about this on and off since I saw her post. It’s not an easy question at all. I have many authors I consider favourites but if they were the only author I could read, would they be enough to sustain me? I’m coming around to putting Emile Zola as my choice – his novels are strong on plot but they are even stronger on ideas. There are 20 of them in his Rougon-Macquart series covering multiple aspects of life in 19th century France – from alcoholism, prostitution, industrial disputes and poverty to the birth of the department store. Plenty of variety to keep me engaged.

Now my challenge to you all – what would your choice be? And of course, why?

Article: Facing down a book Goliath

A couple of days ago I heard of a rumpus involving Abe Books which is an online book re-seller owned by Amazon. Apparently Abe decided it would no longer list booksellers from the Czech Republic, South Korea, Hungary and Russia. The company didn’t really explain its decision beyond the fact it was changing to a new payment service provider.

What they never anticipated was the reaction. Hundreds of secondhand booksellers around the world united in a flash strike against Amazon. More than 400 booksellers in 26 countries not affected by the decision retaliated by marking any of their stock listed on Abe as being “temporarily unavailable”.

Such was the strength of opposition that Abe has now backed down. I suspect that the senior management at Amazon stepped in when they saw what was happening.

Read about the issue here and  here . 

What struck me about this scenario was that it was all completely unnecessary. The objectors didn’t question the right of Abe to make a commercial decision about how to operate its business. But they did object to the way this was implemented. Little warning given to the booksellers who would, as a consequence, see their business severely impacted. Little consideration given to the fact this would mean a loss of jobs.

If Abe had been less high-handed and insensitive they would not have faced a protest that has damaged their reputation.

It’s a lesson that all big companies need to understand. Treat your customers and business partners with respect and they will remain loyal. Disregard them at your peril.

 

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

October 2017 Snapshot

October snapshot (1)Let’s get the good news out of the way first. Last month you may remember I said that, because I’d broken my upper humerus, I had limited movement in my arm. Good progress has been made in the past month and I no longer walk like a penguin. I can do pretty much most domestic and social activities unaided now, including drive my car. Freedom at last!!! I even managed a three hour baking class last week where we were throwing around a heavy batch of bread dough (I did it left handed just to be on the safe side).

Apart from trying to coax my damaged wing back into health, what else was I up to on October 1, 2017?

 Reading now

Vernon_god_little I’m not one of those people who makes a habit of simultaneously reading multiple books. Two I can manage providing they are in vastly different genres (a crime novel say and a more literary novel, or a novel and a short story collection) but unusually I have three books on the go at the moment.

The first is my 44th Booker Prize winner – Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre which won the prize in 2003.  This is not one I was looking forward to read and it seems I am not alone. Although some reviewers thought it highly comic, others hated it and didn’t feel it deserved to win the prize. It’s set in a town in Texas in the aftermath of a mass shooting of students at the local school. One student, Vernon Little, is taken in for questioning and gets caught up in the legal and media circus. I’ve not yet read far enough to judge whether this will be one I enjoy but it certainly has a unique style.

By contrast on my e-reader is a psychological story that became a cinema classic when it was adapted  by Alfred Hitchcock with the leading roles taken by James Stewart and Kim Novak. The film was Vertigo and the book was D’entre les morts (From Among the Dead) by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac. It was published in English as The Living and the Dead in 1956 and now re-issued under the new Pushkin Vertigo imprint. Apart from re-locating the action from Paris to San Francisco, Hitchcock seems to have stayed fairly close to the original story of a former detective asked to help an old schoolfriend who is concerned about the increasingly strange behaviour of his wife.  Interest in his quarry becomes a dangerous obsession however.

My third book is a re-read. It’s a novella which has become a stable of the school syllabus in the UK for 14-16 year olds. I’d never read Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck until four years ago when it was chosen by the book club I belonged to at the time but loved it (my review is here). Now I’m re-reading it to help coach a young girl in my village who is being bullied at school so studying on her own until a solution can be found.

Reflecting on the state of my personal library

One of my goals for 2017 is to enjoy the books I already own and to reign back on acquiring yet more. I started 2017 with 318 unread books.  I’m holding steady to last month’s total at 274. I bought just one book in September:  The Ladies’ Paradise (Au Bonheur des Dames) by Emile Zola published in 1883 as part of his Rougon-Macquart cycle. This one focuses on the world of the department store, a form of retail outlet that is very familiar to us today but was an innovative concept in the mid-nineteenth century. Until then, shoppers had to visit separate establishments for different items but with  Le Bon Marché (the model for Zola’s store) they could find all their purchases under one roof. The book was adapted by the BBC for a costume-drama series The Paradise broadcast in 2012 and 2013.

Thinking of reading next…

I don’t know what I’ll be reading later in the month other than one of the remaining six Booker prize titles from my list. It’s a long time since I read any of the Louise Penny novels I bought on my last trip to the USA ( I much preferred the covers of the US editions to the British ones) so a return to her fictitious village of Three Pines could be on the cards. I also found a little collection of Penelope Lively books when I was hunting through the shelves recently and its ages since I read anything by her. As always there are too many choices!

Watching:  I read Ian McEwan’s The Child in Time at the time it was published which is now about 30 years ago and went on to read and enjoy many more of his novels (his early output is, with the exception of the magnificent Atonement, superior to his more recent work.). The recent BBC adaptation starring Benedict Cumberbatch was a reminder of just how powerful a study of loss and grief The Child in Time is and of McEwan’s versatility as an author.

Required viewing in our house at the moment is The Great British Bake Off.  I’m frustrated by the intrusions of the commercial breaks but other than that the series hasn’t seemed to have suffer much by it’s move away from the BBC ( I never did like the Mel and Sue double act). There’s a new series of The Apprentice starting I think this week – this is a show that is probably on its last legs. The last few series they seem to have scraped the barrel and found the most inane and useless candidates possible. They talk a lot about how great they are but I wouldn’t let them anywhere near any business of mine. It’s good for a laugh though.

And that is it for this month. I hope by this time next month the arm will be back in operation again. Until then, happy reading everyone.

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