Random honourable mention: Euphoria by Lily King

I read Euphoria two years ago among the flurry and haze of caring for baby twins. It is one of the few things I haven’t already forgotten about that period and I still find myself recommending it to anyone silly enough to ask me if I have read anything good lately (well of course I have). It is quite simply one of the most excellent novels I have had the pleasure of reading. Skilfully told and written, it is a fictional account of the relationship between three anthropologists in isolated Sepik River communities in New Guinea in the 1930s, though inspired by the life and works of Margaret Mead.

One can hardly imagine the research entailed in a creation that reads so authentically, and yet at no time is the research conspicuous. It is an enthralling story involving fascinating characters in an almost unimaginable situation, and though for most of the book we are among people who say so little to each other (whether due to secrets, emotional reserve, mistrust, language barriers or complete cultural incomprehension), you feel as if you learn quite a lot about these people, and you quickly become invested in Andrew and Nell and their futures, not to mention standing beside them in this rare world that was alien then and, to the vast majority of us, still is now.

Euphoria is a novel with a beating pulse that will capture your mind and spirit. Wonderfully written, enthralling, emotional, tense, heartfelt, intelligent. It is a book with its own soul and completely unforgettable. And that is why, when you ask me for a book recommendation this is still one of the titles that immediately comes to mind. Simply brilliant.

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Where Falcons Fall by CS Harris

Each year I buy myself books as a birthday present. My financial situation at the time dictates whether I stroll out of the bookshop with a couple of novels nestled in my handbag or if I traverse carefully, knees bent, back braced, trying not to topple over under the weight of soon-to-be dusty volumes. In recent years it has been the former, but however many stories I manage to gift myself there is always a certain series included. For my birthday I always buy myself the latest Sebastian St Cyr novel.

falcons-fall-225-shadowThis blog is not devoid of Sebastian reviews. The series is one of my very favourite things to read – a thoroughly enjoyable experience I look forward to with giddy excitement. The books also rank in my mum’s favourites and even though we currently live very far apart (England and Australia) I still pop each finished ‘Sebastian’ in a bag and mail it across the seas for her to read. I know it would probably cost about the same to order her a copy, but the act of specially posting it is one that makes us feel connected; somehow the reading experience is more shared.

In Where Falcons Fall, Sebastian and Hero are outside London for once, and it gives the story a refreshing air. While staying in a small Shropshire village to try to discover more information about the man Sebastian believes could be his half-brother, and thus perhaps learn who is their shared mother, the Viscount and his wife become entangled in a rare local, and also particularly mysterious, murder. What at first appeared to be a quiet, harmless hamlet soon reveals itself to be a place hiding dark deeds and people with dark agendas.

I will have said it before, but I can’t recommend the Sebastian St Cyr series enough. They are well-written, well-plotted, romantic and exciting –  the perfect novels to give yourself for your birthday. Or  for Christmas. Or just because.

 

 

Books I’ve talked about when I’ve talked about books at book group (part two)

I missed book group last week. It makes me sad for all the missed joys mentioned in the first part of this post series and also because when I can’t get around to reading the book-group book I feel it means I am not using my potential reading time as I should. It means I am letting work-reading start to take over again. It means I am checking emails while commuting when I could be reading my books. It means I am watching too many TV shows where an expert comes in to fix a bankrupt country house/failing hotel/failing restaurant or where amateur cooks try to make me feel un-gourmet by pretending they are proper chefs, and maybe we should all get over our fascination with goat’s cheese and pop-up restaurants. Not that we should blame the goat’s cheese.

So, yes, I wasn’t reading as much last month and I missed my previous book group meeting. Well, I opted out. But before that moment of truancy I had read a lot of book-group books. And if you didn’t catch the link to part one of this series above, I’m giving you another chance to click on it here.

Sometimes outsiders fear book groups are full of self-proclaimed intellectuals full of high talk about this literary theory and that rather brilliant but unfathomable novelist. Telling them you discussed Kafka the other month doesn’t help this fear. Mind you, if they’d been at the pub where we hold our meetings and overheard our conversation, they may not have felt so intellectually threatened. It went a little bit like this:

‘Oh my god, I just couldn’t finish it.’

‘I finished it but I didn’t really get it.’

‘I think I get what he’s on about but I don’t think I really care.’

‘Although, I am kind of glad that I can now legitimately use the term Kafkaesque.’

I was glad of that too, well not about using the term so much, but having now read a novel by Franz Kafka I will no longer feel as deceitful about the odd reference to him or his writing that I may have occasionally made in the past without having ever read any of his work.

So The Trial was not a resounding success, but not everyone hated it. The person who chose the novel, for example, adores it. He chose it for book group because it is one of his favourite books and he wanted to see what other people thought about it. He held up well, I must say. And he continues to attend our meetings so mustn’t think we’re entirely stupid. Plus the university student who sold me my copy at the bookstore raved on about dear old Franz for some time. And as once mentioned in a post a few years back, author and playwright Alan Bennett often wrote of Kafka in his journals.

So what did I think? I found The Trial a challenging reading experience. It took a lot of brain power to get through and as a reader who prefers a steady plot and reasonably clear character motivations my reading of this novel was slow. It was also tentative. I kept waiting for a penny to drop, for a revealing, for a proactive change in the character and/or his situation, I  kept waiting to feel as though I understood exactly what the point of the book was and therefore could allow myself to feel smart. I kept waiting. I also had a gap of a week or more between readings, which was not a good idea. It was difficult to get back into the tale even to the small degree that I had been ‘in it’ previously. I was on holiday and who wants to be reading Kafka while on safari? Well, maybe Alan Bennett and that girl from the book store. Maybe a lot of people, for all I know. But not me. It felt like homework. I was lying under a tree in the Namibian bush and I did not want to be doing homework.

Like my book group cohort who was glad they could now use the term ‘Kafkaesque’ without shame, I am still pleased that I have read The Trial, though perhaps not for the reasons I should. It is always better to be able to say that you didn’t really like a novel having read it, than pretend you know all about it when you haven’t. Plus sometimes it is good to challenge yourself, to exercise your mind and see how far it will stretch,  to be able to discuss how a book made you feel instead of avoid writings you are frightened you might not understand. In the end you may not enjoy the book, it might even make you feel a little bit thick, but going through the process and then discussing it with others can still be one of the joys of book group.

Books I’ve talked about when I’ve talked about books at book group (part one)

A few weeks back I hit the one-year mark of living in London. It’s hard to believe, but some thirteen months ago all the talk of ‘Oh I’m just going  to the UK to see what happens’ became a reality. It’s been an interesting year; magical in some ways (I met my wonderful boyfriend and have visited lovely places), uneventful in others (one still has to work for a living, you know), ridiculously simple on occasion (you mean I just hop on this train and two hours later I’m in Paris?) and, at times, terribly difficult. The main difficulties come from being without family and social networks mixed in with a little British bureaucracy and the fact that even though Australian and British cultures have much in common, there are enough differences to sometimes make everyday conversations and errands somewhat… puzzling… and more difficult than you know they should be.

But the good times outweigh the tough times. Most of the time. The longer I’ve been here the more friends and contacts I’ve made and the more I seem to be able to function in society without having to use charades or repeat myself. Yes, this happens even when you’re both speaking English.

One of the best things I did last year was join a book group. They’re an excellent bunch of people, and I look forward to our monthly meetings. The chance of a group of strangers thrown together because they all ‘like reading’ getting on really well and even being able to talk about other things than the books they like (or don’t like), must be slim. Think of all those author events you’ve been to where everyone who asks a question seems to be a bore or raving lunatic… they all really like reading too.

So joining a book group worked out for me. For all the reasons I have mentioned in previous posts and now I also always gain a snippet of information about London life or a recommendation for a new thing to see, do or visit. Most of all, I like that it is my thing. My new book group is a little piece of my London life.

And so to the books. Selected for general interest, discussion potential, reputation, size (a shorter book has more chance of being read by all), enjoyment and intellectual growth, we have read six books in the last six months that I have yet to share with you. I am tired of focusing on the infrequency of my blogging (one of the not-good things that has occurred over the last thirteen months), so let’s just get on with it.

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The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid

A slim volume where the reader is put in the position of one of the characters. A not-particularly-interesting character but the person to whom the is-he-just-friendly or is-he-simply-dangerous narrator addresses himself throughout the novel. It’s rare as a reader to be being told by the narrator about what ‘you’ are doing. It puts you in an intriguing position. Do I feel uncomfortable because the story is setting me up to feel this way? Or do I just feel uncomfortable? And do I want to be continually addressed as a middle-aged American businessman? I am very different to those kinds of people. Aren’t I?

Our narrator, Changez, tells his story in a cafe in Pakistan to a man who he may or may not have run into on purpose. His story is of his development from an optimistic, ambitious Princeton student who socialised with the wealthy and aimed to have a New York business career, to a young man disillusioned with America and all it represents, so much so that he finds himself returning to Pakistan and ‘siding’ with Islamic fundamentalism.

The writing is technically strong, and the narrator slippery and clever. This has its annoyances for a reader. I read the whole novel with a sense of mistrust and a slight sinister feeling. I constantly wondered if I was being misdirected. I recall finding it difficult to relate to any of the characters, though I felt sorry for Changez at times. Could he really be a terrorist? Maybe he’s just a friendly man. Why do I assume he is dangerous? Is it because he claims to be sympathetic to the jihadists’ cause? Or is it just because of his clothes, his beard, his language? There is allegory and symbolism at play—perhaps a little too much. And I say this having not caught it all as I was reading the novel. When the extent of it was relayed to me by—more insightful—others, I do admit to some eye rolling on my part.

I found The Reluctant Fundamentalist an interesting read and it dealt with themes I wouldn’t usually choose to deal with in my novel-choices. Many in my group liked it and had enjoyed the author’s previous work. It was a good novel to talk about and, as we all know, for a book to work at book group it has to be able to be talked about.

With that premise in mind, the next selection definitely fit the bill. Ever wanted to use the term ‘Kafka-esque’ in context? Well, soon you will be able to. (Mind you, my readers being such a smart bunch you probably already do!) Our next selection was The Trial and I will post on it and other book-club selections sooner than you—or even I—could possibly imagine.

To be continued…

Today by David Miller

Regular readers may recall that I sometimes steer clear of books due to preconceived notions of what I don’t like to read. Often, happily, I am proved wrong or wonder what all my fuss was about when a book breaking such rules entertains, informs and impresses me. In fact, it happens a lot. Which could highlight that I’m a flexible and adventurous reader and human being; or that I’m somewhat fickle and don’t know my own mind. Let’s not ponder that for too long.

One of these ‘rules’ is that one should avoid books that include family trees.  My theory is that anything complex enough to require a diagram outlining the rise and fall of generations in one family is going to be confusing and a drain on one’s grey matter, and also take a looooooong time to read, what with all that flicking back to the start of the book to remember who Gertrude is and why she’s important. It’s one of the reasons I’ve avoided classic Russian literature for so long, having developed an understanding as a young person that all of those thick and heavy books were part cold misery, part family saga and that I would spend an entire year trying to read them and never quite understand them.

We get ideas from strange places, and I can’t tell you where the above theory came from, just that it exists; and, as usual, it’s not as if I haven’t read, comprehended and enjoyed books that include family trees—Wuthering Heights features one for a start. And yet a dedicated page showcasing a genealogical chart will, more times than not, set my reader’s heart in a pittering of anxiety and a metaphorical pulling up of one’s britches in preparation for trying times ahead. A dramatis personae at the start of a novel causes exactly the same reaction. In fact, it may be worse. At least with a family tree you know the characters are connected by DNA and marriage…

Today by David Miller includes a dramatis personae. When I first opened the book it made me hesitant, but the novel’s general appeal kept me strong and I believed that, as had occurred in the past, the breaking of one of my rules could lead to a new discovery.

Today is a small, thin novel with a beautiful cover featuring filigree-like type. The blurb uses words such as understated, fragile and profound. Sitting on top of my flatmate’s radiator it was appealing for its elegance, brevity and its suggestion of an English country house. All these things outweighed the existence of the characters list and anyway, it was a small book—how complicated could it be? The answer to that is: not especially. Mind you, this does encourage a second question: why did the book then need a list of players? And my answer to that: it probably didn’t. If you didn’t want to include every person who turns up on a page for two sentences. Which the author clearly did want to do.

Though the presence of an unnecessary character list didn’t affect my enjoyment of Today one way or another, the novel proper, I’m afraid to say, did. This in no scientific way proves that a family tree/dramatis personae at the start of a book indicates that it should be avoided, but it does, unfortunately, help to solidify my noted presumptions about what the presence of these literary aids means about my liking of a book.

A father, husband, writer of note, friend and employer (all the same man) dies just before a planned gathering at a big English house near Canterbury. The novel follows the events in the house and the reactions of those closest to the deceased in the aftermath of his death. We see most characters through the eyes of, or their interactions with, two characters: one of the man’s sons, John, and the man’s secretary, Lilian. Lilian and John share a close friendship, despite the difference in their ages and the seeming complexity of Lilian’s role in the family.

As the blurb suggests, this novel is quiet and understated and explores the idea of bereavement in an intelligent way, but I think for me it was a little too quiet, a little too understated. While reading Today I always felt a distance between myself and the characters. I wasn’t able to get close to them or empathise with them in the way that I felt I should due to the subject matter; I was merely observing them all as some of the characters were observing each other and it was in a disinterested way, and it therefore caused me to be disinterested in what I was reading. Even though I believe this distance and emotional withdrawal was part of the author’s intended exploration of notions such as (a type of) Englishness and (some) families, the exploration didn’t seem to include me enough as a reader.

In the end it wasn’t the inclusion of a dramatis personae that caused me to feel so ‘blah’ about David Miller’s Today, but neither can I say that reading this novel was an interesting or exciting time for me. I recall feeling quite uninspired about it all as I was reading it, and having to little to say when people asked about it.  The characters seem so intent on ‘doing the right thing’ and staying calm and reserved, that it left me feeling fairly numb; and although I appreciate that this might have been the reality of the situation, and of the times, it doesn’t much make for a novel I want to be reading. I didn’t dislike Today, I just didn’t care about it. And I’m the kind of person who likes to care about things.

Trick of the Dark by Val McDermid

I’m not usually backwards in coming forwards. On reading this statement, those who know me well are probably rolling their eyes and muttering a mutter of faux disbelief. ‘You don’t say, I always saw you as a timid creature lacking confidence in your own opinion.’ But often in these book reviews I meander about a little. A bit of entertaining waffle at the start, the occasional divulging of personal information no-one needed to know, a stab at describing a plotline or a thematic penchant, before a bit more waffle, a pronouncement of judgement, and a conclusive note that doesn’t always end up how I imagined it would when I started writing.

But this time. This time. No mucking around, no babble, no gushing, no sitting on fences. I’m embracing in my blog-personality that which is more apparent in my everyday non-blogging existence. I’m going to be straight with you good people: I did not like Val McDermid’s Trick of the Dark.

Charlie Flint is a psychologist who is asked by a former college professor to find out who killed her daughter’s husband on their wedding day. The mother suspects her daughter’s new girlfriend, Jay, a wealthy and powerful businesswoman who both Charlie and her teacher know from the college. It seems people who get in Jay’s way keep ending up dead, and Charlie takes it on herself to discover if this successful and rich business celebrity is actually a serial killer.

When I say I did not like this book, I mean it fairly comprehensively. I didn’t get much enjoyment from reading it, I didn’t have enough interest in or empathy for any of the characters, I didn’t find much in it to appreciate, I wanted to read it quickly but only so I could finish it. It wasn’t terrible (if it was I could at least lampoon it) it just wasn’t, well, it didn’t do anything for me and I couldn’t see how it would do much for anyone else. I found myself running through the questions I would have asked the author if I was editing the manuscript and the suggestions I would have made for changes to the text, and believe me, it is not a good sign when I am reading for pleasure and my editorial hat takes over. The significance of these opinions, for all the significance my opinions usually have, is that in the past Ms McDermid’s books have done something for me; I have enjoyed them very much. But here is the key difference: never before have I read one of Val McDermid’s novels that wasn’t a part of the Tony Hill series.

So I’m pondering a few things: Did the author just have a bad one? Did I just not get it? Is it only that I am terribly attached to the characters in her Tony Hill books (due to both the books and the television series) and those characters rise high above all others? Or are those novels Ms McDermid’s true calling and other stories are not?

There was a new Tony Hill novel released recently, and once it is in paperback I will be getting myself a copy to read (I almost splurged on the hardback when I was in Edinburgh a couple of months ago). But I don’t think I’ll go running towards Val McDermid’s other novels for some time. Trick of the Dark left me too disappointed.

The Brave by Nicholas Evans

Back in 1995 Nicholas Evans’ novel, The Horse Whisperer, was a mega-bestseller. In 1998 Robert Redford made a film based on the book and the world went horse-whispering crazy. All of a sudden—in Australia at least—morning television chat shows and weekend current affairs flagships were running stories about moustachioed silent-types in checked shirts who could make a pony dance to their bidding (which anyone who grew up in Sydney and longed for weekend visits to El Caballo Blanco can attest, is a mighty fine thing). More important than this equine-talking fad, Nicholas Evans became a successful author and went on to write some very good novels, in particular The Loop, but also The Smoke Jumper, The Divide and most recently, The Brave.

Mr Evans is a fine writer and his narratives are well-honed. I would describe them as ‘quietly told’ but I always find myself helplessly wrapped up in them and eager to continue paddling along. He is very good at communicating the private sides of his characters, and can write of slightly ‘damaged’ individuals and their soul-searching without resorting to clichés.

His stories tend to be set in natural environs, perhaps because he knows he has strong skills in describing landscapes, or perhaps because he just prefers writing about them. In any case his tales are mostly set in mountains, on farms, in small towns, on the plains. (And in America, although he is an Englishman who lives in England.) Because of these settings, sometimes his narratives include an animal-theme, for example in The Loop we learnt a lot about wolves.  But sometimes, they don’t. This doesn’t bother me, but it seemed to bother some of his publishers. Well, they at least sometimes appeared to ignore this fact, and continued to attempt to shove an animal onto any of his covers that they justifiably could. After all, this is the man who wrote The Horse Whisperer, the reading public might not be smart enough to work that out if they didn’t see a furry creature staring back at them.

All I can say is thank god Mr Evans went back to the horsies so that novel, publisher, cover and reader were aligned again. Not that The Brave is really about horses, but there are storylines involving hollywood westerns, cowboys and indians, horse handlers and mountain riding. I certainly won’t quibble with the equine-flavoured cover, which is, in my opinion, quiet stunning. What the novel mostly discusses, though, is courage and what it means; when it is false, when it is true and when it falters.

Tom Bedford is our protagonist and we hear his tale from two ends: 1959 when he is a quiet English boy obsessed with westerns, who is thrust into Tinseltown when his sister marries a TV-star cowboy; and 2007 where he is an academic and writer living with a secret from his childhood that is brought to the fore when his soldier son is charged with murder.

When I was reading The Brave, I struggled somewhat to succinctly explain to others what the plot was because, like Mr Evans’ previous novels, there was a complexity to it that warranted more than a one or two lines from the likes of me. When I call the novel ‘complex’ I don’t mean that it is difficult or convoluted; I mean that it is layered, involved and considered. The experience of reading The Brave is a quiet one; but it is an intense quiet, full of emotion and raw introspection, cleverly constructed by a talented author who deftly leads you through his tale. Layered, involved, complex, and there are key plot points you don’t want to reveal to others for fear they will ‘ruin’ the story, plus a general sense that this is not a book to summarise for others; more one to suggest that they should read and experience for themselves, and hopefully enjoy.

I may not have been able to quickly outline the plot of The Brave for you while I was reading it, but I could have told you that I was absolutely taken with it. I could have told you that I felt as if I carried some of the emotions of the characters around with me during this time, and that I used any spare moment to pick up the book and read a few pages more. I could have told you that the parts of the story set in 2007 were very good, but the parts set in 1959 were excellent. I could have told you that I had always been a fan of Nicholas Evans’ books and that I was just so pleased that he’d had another book published and that it was, plain and simple, a very good book.