Books Read in November 2018

This month I read seven books, made up of one review copy that came to me via  NetGalley, two library books and four of my own books (two of these on Kindle). Two of the seven books are non-fiction and the rest are fiction. My ratings range from 5 to 2.5 stars and are based solely on my reactions to the books.

I’ve written about three of these books (click on the links to read my reviews):

Jacob's Room is Full of Books: A Year of ReadingAbsolute ProofIn a Dark, Dark Wood

  1. Jacob’s Room is Full of Books by Susan Hill 5*  – in which Susan Hill describes a year of her reading.
  2. Absolute Proof by Peter James 3.5* –  a standalone thriller that is very different from his Roy Grace books. It has similarities to Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, as the search is on for proof of  God’s existence.
  3. In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware 2.5* – I was disappointed as this book promised to be a psychological thriller but it neither thrilled nor scared me, although it is a page-tuner. Leonora and Clare haven’t seen  or even spoken to each other since they were 16, ten years ago. So why has Clare invited Leonora to her hen party held in a glass house in the middle of a wood?

Here are some brief notes about the remaining four books:

I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes With DeathThe ReckoningThe New Mrs CliftonTombland (Matthew Shardlake, #7)

I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell 5* – I wrote this Friday post about this book, with two quotations and a summary of the book. It’s a memoir with a difference: seventeen encounters of near-death experiences, with Maggie at different ages, in different locations, revealing a whole life in a series of tense, visceral snapshots. It’s a beautifully written book that I loved.

The Reckoning by John Grisham 5*, about Pete Banning, Clanton’s favourite son, a returning war hero, the patriarch of a prominent family, a farmer, father, neighbour, and a faithful member of the Methodist Church. Why did he shoot and kill the Reverend Dexter Bell? And then refuse to say why he killed him? I was intrigued and fascinated by the whole book that went back into Pete’s wartime experiences during world War Two during the Bataan Death March in the Philippines.

The New Mrs Clifton by Elizabeth Buchan 4* this begins in 1974 with the discovery of a skeleton, the remains of a woman, between twenty-five and thirty, buried beneath a tree in the garden of house in Clapham, facing the Common. Her identity and why and how she was killed is not revealed until very nearly the end of the book.

It then moves back in time to 1945 when Intelligence Officer Gus Clifton returns to London with Krista, the German wife he married secretly in Berlin. For his sisters, Julia and Tilly, this broken woman is nothing more than the enemy. For Nella, Gus’s loyal fiancée, it is a terrible betrayal. Elizabeth Buchan paints a convincing and moving picture of life in both London and Berlin post-war, highlighting the devastation of the bombing and showing how people have to come to terms with the changes in their lives. All the way through the book I wondered who the killer was and which woman had been murdered.

Tombland by C J Sansom 5* – I wrote this Friday post this book, giving two quotations and a summary of the book. Set in 1549 this is a remarkable and detailed book about the situation as Edward VI is on the throne following the death of his father Henry VIII and his uncle Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, rules as Protector.

Matthew Shardlake has been working as a lawyer in the service of Edward’s sister, the Lady Elizabeth. He is employed to investigate the gruesome murder of Edith Boleyn, the wife of John Boleyn – a distant Norfolk relation of Elizabeth’s mother. But the main part of the book is about Kett’s Rebellion – as thousands of peasants, in protest about the enclosures of common land, gather together on Mousehold Heath outside Norwich and battle ensues.

It’s an enormous book and I’m planning to write a longer post about it.

 

 

 

 

Jacob’s Room is Full of Books by Susan Hill

Nine years ago I read Susan Hill’s Howards End is on the Landing: A Year of Reading, a book in which she wrote about the books from her own collection she’d read or re-read over the course of a year. Jacob’s Room is Full of Books is a similar book in that it follows month by month a year during which she reflects on the books she has read, reread, or returned to the shelves as well as her thoughts on a whole variety of topics.

Jacob's Room is Full of Books: A Year of Reading

It’s full of her observations on the weather, on nature – birds, flowers, trees, moles, eels, egrets and so on – on writers and writing, about religion and fairy tales and many more besides as well as on books. She also writes about herself and notes her obsessions with, for example, Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Set, Marilyn Monroe, wood engravings, medieval monasticism, Elizabeth Bowen, Benjamin Britten and her collection of Ladybird Books. Some of her observations on other topics are short but conjure up vivid pictures, such as in November she recorded: ‘RAINING. Sky like the inside of a saucepan.‘ (page 208) And in October: ‘THIS GOLDEN OCTOBER continues to drift slowly down like a twirling leaf.’  (page 186)

One of the things I like about this book is the passion with which Susan Hill writes and her strong opinions about books, writers, literary prizes, what makes a good reader and so on and so forth, that she has no qualms about expressing (and why should she?) You are left in no doubt about what she does and does not like. For example she likes Robert Louis Stevenson (so do I) and the way he cleverly and cunningly creates a sense of sinister and evil in his creation of Mr Hyde. She thinks he’s the ‘perfect writer’ (page 188) and describes him thus: ‘Next to Dickens, I think RLS was the greatest writer of his time.’ (page 54) She didn’t like fairy tales as a child (I did), describing fairies as

Wispy, wafty, wish-washy things. Nowhere near on a par with sprites and goblins, witches, wizards, trolls. As a child I lapped up stories about any of these. I can understand why I did not, and do not, have any patience with fairies and their stories. They are so colourless (despite Andrew Lang’s best attempts). So dull. Yes. Just dull. (page 21)

And yet as a child she also liked the Flower Fairies books by Cecily Mary Baker (as did I) and pored over their illustrations, but followed that up by describing them as ‘just an excuse for pretty pastel pictures.

She doesn’t like fantasy and science fiction, although as a child she loved fantasy. She likes, amongst others, Thomas Hardy, Somerset Maugham, Raymond Chandler, Muriel Spark and Barbara Pym, to a certain extent, describing her books as ‘dated, but not dated enough’, but not Jane Austen – oh my, I love Jane Austen’s books:

I read most of the reissued novels [of Pym’s] at the time and never entirely saw the point of the praise, probably because everyone compared them to Jane Austen and that is never a good recommendation to me. (page 200)

She then goes on to change her mind about Pym after reading Shirley Hazzard’s review of Pym’s Quartet in Autumn, which I haven’t read, but after reading her description I think I would like.

She has no interest left in the First World War, particularly in fiction about it (I have) since she wrote Strange Meeting in 1971, but she admires Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, but has ‘not even tried Parade’s End‘. She seems to have more time for the Second World War novels, praising Olivia Manning’s novels, the Balkan and Levant trilogies, which reminds  me I still haven’t read the third book in the Balkan Trilogy.

She is scathing about creative writing courses: ‘I don’t suppose anything is obligatory for these courses, which are as thick as autumn leaves on the ground. Writing is the thing. Ye gods.’ (page 189)

There’s plenty more on the same lines about other authors and books – there are many, many more that I could mention – and I found it all fascinating, rambling and chatty, a bit repetitive in parts, but still fascinating. And there is a list of the books she refers to at the end of the book. It’s probably a book that could stand a second reading.

And as she says:

Reading is magic. Books are magic. It starts when we are shown picture books and realise there is another world beyond the everyday one we know. Once we can read ourselves, we live inside the magic. The only problem is that we have to emerge at the end of a book, and we don’t want to return to that dull domestic world we know. The only solution to that problem, of course, is that there is always the next book, and the next and there is bonus magic if it is another in a series we already love, so we are plunging back into a magic other world but one we already know. We feel a lift of the heart, a lurch of the stomach, when we find ourselves in it again. (pages 55 – 56)

Yes, reading is, indeed, magic!

  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Profile Books (5 Oct. 2017)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9781781250808
  • ISBN-13: 978-1781250808
  • ASIN: 1781250804
  • Source: a library book
  • My Rating: 5*

In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware

In a Dark, Dark Wood

Nora hasn’t seen Clare for ten years. Not since the day Nora walked out of her old life and never looked back.

Until, out of the blue, an invitation to Clare’s hen party arrives. A weekend in a remote cottage – the perfect opportunity for Nora to reconnect with her best friend, to put the past behind her.

But something goes wrong.

Very wrong.

And as secrets and lies unravel, out in the dark, dark wood the past will finally catch up with Nora.

I featured In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware in this Friday Post on book Beginnings and said that I wasn’t sure I wanted to read it having been disappointed  by the only other book by her that I’ve read, The Woman in Cabin 10.  But as some people commented that they had enjoyed it and as it has good reviews on Amazon and Goodreads I decided to read on. It promises to be a psychological thriller – a scary book – but maybe I’ve read too many psychological thrillers as I didn’t find it thrilling or scary. It’s mystery novel that slowly reveals why Leonora, known either as Lee or Nora or Leo, and Clare haven’t seen  or even spoken to each other since they were 16, ten years ago. That was also when Nora’s heart was broken when her relationship with James came to an abrupt end. She had never come to terms with their break up.

I thought the setting was good – the hen party is held in a glass house in the middle of a wood in Northumberland. The mobile phone signal is practically nonexistent and they are cut off from the outside world and isolated when the snow sets, in cutting off the landline. But the characters are stereotypes – a new mother pining for her baby back home, a gay male actor, a gay female doctor (who is in my opinion the most sensible of the group), the dippy devoted friend of the bride who has organised this terrible hen party, the bride, self-obsessed, selfish and manipulative as well as Nora, who can’t move on from her past. The outcome is predictable when footprints appear in the snow, the backdoor that was supposed to be locked is found open and the hen party keep arguing and antagonising each other. It’s obvious from the start that something terrible had happened when Nora wakes up in a hospital bed and realises that she can’t remember what had happened … or what she had done.

In a Dark, Dark Wood is Ruth Ware’s debut novel and the film rights have been optioned  by New Line Cinema.  I can imagine that a film would be much more terrifying than the book – it should be, the potential is there. I don’t like being critical of a book, but I can’t recommend this book.

 

First Chapter First Paragraph: The Twilight Hour by Nicci Gerrard

Every Tuesday First Chapter, First Paragraph/Intros is hosted by Vicky of I’d Rather Be at the Beach sharing the first paragraph or two of a book she’s reading or plans to read soon.

This week I’m featuring The Twilight Hour by Nicci Gerrard, one of the books I’ve borrowed from the library.

The Twilight Hour

It begins:

Eleanor woke to what was not there. Outside, the wind still roared,dashing pellets of rain against the windows; inside it was too silent, not a breath or a heartbeat save hers. The darkness felt uninhabited. Before she reached out her hand, groping past the water jug and the vase of dying flowers to touch the bed and find it empty, the blanket thrown back and the pillow dislodged, she knew she was alone. She let fear seep through her, into every space in her body. She could taste the muddy, metal ache of it in her mouth; feel it in the palms of her hands and the base of her spine and in her throat like a rippling, oily snake; she could smell it on her skin, sour as spoilt milk.

That’s a terrifying feeling to wake up with – that image of a rippling, oily snake in her throat leaves me feeling sick –  and wondering why she is so scared.

Blurb:

Eleanor Lee has lived a fiercely independent existence for over ninety years, but now it’s time to tidy her life away – books, photographs, paintings, letters – a lifetime of possessions all neatly boxed up for the last time. But amongst them there are some things that must be kept hidden. And, nearing blindness, Eleanor needs help to uncover them before her children and grandchildren do.

Peter, a young man with a broken heart who feels as lost as Eleanor’s past, is employed to help with this task. And together they uncover traces of another life – words and photographs telling a story of forbidden love, betrayal, passion, grief and self-sacrifice, which Eleanor must visit one last time.

By speaking her memories out loud, and releasing the secrets of her past, Eleanor can finally lay them to rest. To honour them at last, and protect those who must never know.

What do you think? Would you keep reading?

My Friday Post: And the Mountains Echoed

Book Beginnings Button

Every Friday Book Beginnings on Friday is hosted by Gillion at Rose City Reader where you can share the first sentence (or so) of the book you are reading, along with your initial thoughts about the sentence, impressions of the book, or anything else the opener inspires.

And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini is one of the books I’ve borrowed from the mobile library. It’s due back next week and I’m hoping I can renew it if I don’t finish it by the time the library van comes on Tuesday.

And the Mountains Echoed

It begins:

Fall 1952

So, then. You want a story and I will tell you one. But just the one. Don’t either of you ask for more.

How could a book lover not like this opening!

Description – Amazon UK

Ten-year-old Abdullah would do anything for his younger sister. In a life of poverty and struggle, with no mother to care for them, Pari is the only person who brings Abdullah happiness. For her, he will trade his only pair of shoes to give her a feather for her treasured collection. When their father sets off with Pari across the desert to Kabul in search of work, Abdullah is determined not to be separated from her. Neither brother nor sister know what this fateful journey will bring them.

And the Mountains Echoed is a deeply moving epic of heartache, hope and, above all, the unbreakable bonds of love.

~~~

Also every Friday there is The Friday 56, hosted by Freda at Freda’s Voice.

30879-friday2b56These are the rules:

  1. Grab a book, any book.
  2. Turn to page 56, or 56% on your eReader. If you have to improvise, that is okay.
  3. Find any sentence (or a few, just don’t spoil it) that grabs you.
  4. Post it.
  5. Add the URL to your post in the link on Freda’s most recent Friday 56 post.

Today I’m quoting from page 55 instead of page 56 as it relates back to the opening sentences:

Lately he thought a lot about the story Father had told them the night before the trip to Kabul, the old peasant Baba Ayub and the div. Abdullah would find himself on a spot where Pari had once stood, her absence like a smell pushing up from the earth beneath his feet, and his legs would buckle, and his heart would collapse in on itself, and he would long for a swig of the magic potion the div had given Baba Ayub so he too could forget.

~~~

I borrowed this book because I loved Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns, one of the most devastating and heartbreaking stories I’ve read.

What about you? Does it tempt you or would you stop reading? 

 

A Perfectly Good Man by Patrick Gale

A Perfectly Good Man

5*

Having read Notes from an Exhibition earlier this year I expected to like Patrick Gale’s A Perfectly Good Man, so I’m delighted to say that I loved it.

I have read plenty of books that move backwards and forwards in time and move from one character to another, but not one like A Perfectly Good Man, that does it so successfully that you don’t experience any confusion or struggle to remember who is who – at least that was my experience with this book. It’s set in Cornwall, in particular in Pendeen and Morvah, north-west of Penzance, the setting for Notes from an Exhibition.

The ‘perfectly good man‘ is Barnaby Johnson, a parish priest, a man who always tries to do the right thing; needless to say he doesn’t always manage it. There’s his wife, Dorothy, who becomes known, not appropriately as ‘Dot’, his daughter, Carrie, his adopted Vietnamese son ‘Jim’, who, in the course of the book, reverts to his native name ‘Phuc’, pronounced to rhyme with ‘foot’ and not ‘luck’, and a particularly nasty character who calls himself ‘Modest Carlsson’.

But the novel begins with Lenny, aged 20, who is paralysed after an accident playing rugby and is in a wheelchair. He is unable to cope with the prospect of a life never being able to run or  walk again, a life of people making allowances for him, of charity; he had lived for nights out with his girlfriend,and for rugby. He asks Barnaby to be with him as a witness to his suicide and to pray for him.

I got to know these people very well over the course of the book and eventually understand their individual stories and how their lives interconnect. The significance of their actions not only on themselves but on the others around them became so real as I read on – for example, Dot’s anguish over her miscarriages and the consequences, not just on her and the boy, but on the whole family and community, of adopting a Vietnamese orphan is agonisingly plain. I was pleased to see glimpses of some characters from Notes from an Exhibition as they made fleeting appearances, and a return of Morwenna Middleton to the area, which explained what had happened to her after the events of Notes from an Exhibition. Modest Carlsson is the antithesis of Father Barnaby in his cruel and heartless behaviour in destroying what is a treasured possession and in revealing a devastating secret that he should have kept to himself.

A Perfectly Good Man is a beautifully written book about faith and the loss of faith, about love and cruelty and deception, about ordinary life and about everyday tragedies, and also sublime moments. It’s a quiet novel that left me feeling I must read more of Patrick Gale’s books. Fortunately I already have one more on my shelves, A Place Called Winter historical fiction described as a novel of forbidden love, secrets and escape and in The Times as a novel ‘written with intelligence and warmth’.

My copy:

  • Paperback: 406 pages
  • Publisher: Fourth Estate 2012
  • ISBN-13: 9780007465088
  • Source: Library book
  • My rating: 5*

 

Books Read in September 2018

How my reading habits have changed! It was only a few years ago that I read mostly paper books, but these days I read mostly e-books – six out of the nine books I read in September are e-books. Another major change is the amount of review copies I read. This month I read five review copies that came to me via NetGalley. I also read one library book and the other three books are all my own books – but only one of those is an actual physical book! And only one of the nine books is non-fiction.

They range from 5 star to 2 star books and are a mix of crime and historical fiction plus one biography. My ratings are based solely on my reactions to the books.

I’ve written about five of these books – click on the links to read my reviews:

  1. The Way of All Flesh by Ambrose Parry 5* – historical fiction set in Edinburgh in 1847 as Dr James Young Simpson, a professor of midwifery, discovered the anaesthetic properties of chloroform.
  2. The Dancer at the Gai-Moulin by Georges Simenon 3.5* – one of the early Maigret books, set in Belgium not France.
  3. The Clockmaker’s Daughter by Karen Morton 3* – historical fiction set over multiple time-lines and with multiple narrators. I loved parts of it and it’s richly descriptive, but found it hard to keep track of all the characters and separate strands of the story.
  4. Appleby’s End by Michael Innes 3* – an Inspector Appleby book. It’s surreal, a macabre fantasy with a  complex and completely unrealistic plot and strange characters.
  5. Down to the Woods by M J Arlidge 2.5* – crime fiction, a DI Helen Grace murder mystery, tense and dark with several twists and turns. Not my favourite book of the month!

Here are some brief notes about the remaining four books:

Dead Woman WalkingDead Woman Walking by Sharon Bolton 5* – Sharon Bolton is a brilliant storyteller and this is a brilliant book – complex, very cleverly plotted, full of suspense and completely gripping with great characters and set in Northumberland. It begins with a balloon flight that ends in disaster and only Jessica survives as the balloon crashes to the ground, but she is pursued by a man who is determined to kill her.  I loved this book.

Wedlock: How Georgian Britain's Worst Husband Met His Match

Wedlock:  How Georgian Britain’s Worst Husband Met His Match by Wendy Moore 4* – a biography of Mary Eleanor Bowes, who was one of Britain’s richest young heiresses. Her first husband was the Count of Strathmore – the Queen Mother, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, was a direct descendant of their marriage. Her second marriage to Andrew Robinson Stoney was an absolute disaster. He was brutally cruel and treated her with such violence, humiliation, deception and kidnap, that she lived in fear for her life. This is non-fiction and is full of detail, but even so it reads like a novel.

East of Eden

East of Eden by John Steinbeck 4* –  the story of two families—the Trasks and the Hamiltons—whose generations helplessly re-enact the fall of Adam and Eve and the poisonous rivalry of Cain and Abel. I enjoyed this beautifully written book, which begins slowly, but not as much as The Grapes of Wrath, which I thought was amazing. It’s long – too long really – and to my mind it reads like a morality tale of good versus evil. There are many parallels to the Bible stories, with surely one of the most evil characters ever in Cathy. I liked the way Steinbeck set out the moral dilemmas and gave the characters choice using the Hebrew word ‘timshel‘, meaning ‘thou mayest’.

The Gaslight Stalker (Esther & Jack Enright Mystery #1)The Gaslight Stalker by David Field 2* – historical crime fiction set in London in 1888. This was a disappointing book, that provides a new solution to the Jack the Ripper murders. There are two elements to the plot and I don’t think they mixed well. I liked the historical facts based on the evidence in the Jack the Ripper case and thought they were well written, if a little repetitive. But the romance between Esther, a young seamstress and Jacob Enright, a young police officer, felt out of place and is too simplistically narrated.