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Sample Saturday: 3 “popular” novels

I seldom buy books that are in the bestseller lists. Somehow the more attention a book gets, the less inclined I am to read it. But a few of these bestsellers/much acclaimed novels do creep onto my shelves from time to time. I dug these three from the “owned but unread” shelves today to try and decide whether I want to keep them. You can help me decide.

The Two Lives of Lydia Bird by Josh Silver

I’ve no idea how I came to have this book. It’s marked as a proof copy but I don’t recall ever requesting it nor do I think it’s likely since it’s described as a “love story” and I don’t do romantic fiction.

The blurb tells me its about Lydia whose fiance Freddie is killed in a road accident on her birthday. She just wants to hide indoors and sob but believes that Freddie wouldn’t want her to do that. So she enlists the help of his best friend to take her first steps into the world alone but then gets another chance at her old life with Freddie.

That sounded a bit of a Sliding Doors type of narrative. But I’ve since discovered its more of an alternative reality tale since Lydia tackles her insomnia by joining a clinical trial for a new sleeping pill. Yet whenever she takes one of the little pink pills, she wakes up in an alternate reality, in which her beloved partner of 14 years is still very much alive.

It’s been described as “Heartbreakingly beautiful, butterfly-inducing and laugh out loud funny ” and “a powerful and thrilling love story about the what-ifs that arise at life’s crossroads.”

Loads of readers have clearly enjoyed it because it was on the Sunday Times bestseller list and came with a recommendation from Reese Witherspoon’s book club. I’ve sampled a few of the pages and though it reads well I don’t think its going to hold my attention for long. It belongs more in a home where it will be better appreciated.

The Verdict: Let Go

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine  by Gail Honeyman

Now this is one I did buy myself; I know because my copy still has the “buy one get one half price” sticker. I must have bought it thinking it was worth a punt at half price having seen it “everywhere” a few years ago.

Actually it was pretty hard to miss the book since it won the Costa First Novel Award in 2017; the British Book Awards Debut Of the Year and Overall Winner and was named in the Top Ten of Library’s Thing’s favourite books in 2017.

Gail Honeyman’s debut work is a tale of a 29-year-old woman who’s rather a social misfit and hard to like. She wears the same clothes to work every day and has the same meal deal for lunch. At the weekend she gets through two bottles of vodka.

As the book progresses we apparently come to learn that her behaviour is the result of a traumatic past. Bizzarely she becomes enamoured of the front man for a local band whom she believes is destined to be the love of her life.

I’m anticipating this tale include themes of loneliness and mental illness. It sounds promising, I just hope it doesn’t have a cheesy happy ever after kind of ending….

The Verdict: Keep

The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri

This is a review copy that was passed on to me with a recommendation from Susan who blogs at booksaremycwtches.

As you will not be surprised to discover it’s a story about a man who is a beekeeper in the Syrian city of Aleppo. He and his wife who live a fairly simple life but one enriched by friendship and kinship. Their life and everything they hold dear are destroyed by war

What’s selling this book to me is that Lefteri was inspired to write the story by the people she met and the stories she heard when she volunteered at a centre in Greece for women and children displaced by war. Her own parents were refugees, fleeing their native Cyprus during the war of 1974. Their feelings of trauma also helped inform the novel, according to an interview she gave to The Irish Times.

The Verdict: Keep

My TBR stash is now going to be marginally reduced. 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 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.

#TopTenTuesday Books Added To My TBR Pile

Bookshops may be closed (and are likely to remain so for some considerable time in Wales). But that doesn’t stop me buying books. Other people may have stockpiled toilet roll, pasta and bread flour. But in our house, Covid-19 lockdown has been the catalyst for purchasing, books, books and more books.

Don’t ask me why. With 260 unread books on my shelves (virtual and real) it’s not like I’m going to run out.

I could argue that I am doing my bit for the economy. I could also argue that my purchases are helping prop up independent booksellers. Both are true: the British economy is clearly suffering and the independent book shops and publishers need our support now more than ever.

The reality is that publishers and authors have done far too good a marketing job lately; with more than the normal stream of emails, newsletters and Twitter posts. When you have the resistance level of a gnat, it makes it so hard (no strike that, impossible) to resist. And so I just click to order. Click and order. Click and order. You getting the picture?

Which brings me to the weekly burst of fun that is Top Ten Tuesday.

This week’s topic is Books I‚Äôve Added to my TBR and Forgotten Why. That’s far too easy so I’m bending the rules on this to tell you all about the ten books most recently added to my TBR.

4 books with a Welsh connection

Nia by Robert Minhinnik: published by Seren, an independent publisher in Wales. This is the latest novel from a past winner of Wales Book of The Year, featuring the lives of the Vine family and those around them in a fictitious Welsh coastal town.

Not Thomas by Sara Gethin: I meant to get this when it featured on the list of contenders for the Not The Booker Prize “award” in 2017. But it disappeared into the land of good intentions. It’s published by Honno, a Welsh Women’s Press.

Crushed by Kate Hamer: I enjoyed Kate’s debut novel, Girl In The Red Coat and was keen to read this new one when I heard her speak at an event in Cardiff last year.

A Smattering of Crime and Thriller

The Devil You Know by Emma Kavanagh, published by Orion. I have to buy this one since Emma lives only 5 miles from my home! This sounds like a taut thriller just as her earlier novel To Catch a Killer.

I Am Dust by Louise Beech: it was the theatrical setting that sold me on this novel published by Orenda.

2 In Translation

The Pledge by Friedrich D√ľrrenmatt: this is one of the titles published by the Pushkin Vertigo imprint. The story of a detective’s obsessive pursuit of a child murderer is one of four novels written by this Swiss-born author

A Man by  Keiichiro Hirano: Hirano is a huge name in Japan but this psychological story about the search for identity, is his first novel to be translated into English.

The Australian Corner

So few Australian novels make it to the UK that grab them whenever they became available. When you find two in succession, it’s a strong signal that they need to be bought!

Turbulent Wake by Paul E Hardisty is an issue-based novel with a broad geographic scope, moving from the Caribbean to Yemen and Africa. Scrublands by Paul E. Hardisty is a debut novel which was named as a Sunday Times Crime Book Of The Month.

Medical Front Line

War Doctor: Surgery on the Front Line by David Nott: We’ve seen a number of powerful medical memoirs in recent years. I have high hopes for this book from a vascular surgeon who has volunteered his services in war zones for 25 years.

Have you been on a buying spree lately or have you been able to exercise more restraint than I have?

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