Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

The Master of Ballantrae, James in baptism, took from his father the love of serious reading; some of his tact perhaps as well, but that which was only policy in the father became black dissimulation in the son. The face of his behaviour was merely popular and wild: he sat late at wine, later at the cards; had the name in the country of “an unco man for the lasses;” and was ever in the front of broils. But for all he was the first to go in, yet it was observed he was invariably the best to come off; and his partners in mischief were usually alone to pay the piper. This luck or dexterity got him several ill-wishers, but with the rest of the country, enhanced his reputation; so that great things were looked for in his future, when he should have gained more gravity. […] I think it notable that he had always vaunted himself quite implacable, and was taken at his word; so that he had the addition among his neighbours of “an ill man to cross.” Here was altogether a young nobleman (not yet twenty-four in the year ’45) who had made a figure in the country beyond his time of life.

* * * * * * * * *

She told him it had been six years ago that she had stayed a day with the Rasputins while on a pilgrimage to Kiev. It was the busy season, and Rasputin was mostly out in the fields, but he would often run home to check on things, each time trying to get her to kiss him. She resisted, insisting that it was not right, but he told her that “among us spiritual pilgrims seeking to save ourselves there is a type of spiritual kissing, like the way the Apostle Paul kissed St. Thekla.” Karneeva repeated how while climbing up out of the chapel beneath the stables, he had grabbed her and kissed her cheek. It was then Rasputin told her of the appearance of the Holy Spirit. Later that day, Glukhovtsev brought Karneeva and Rasputin together for what the Russians called an ochnaia stavka, a sort of face-to-face confrontation, to try to get to the bottom of her claims. Seated directly across from Rasputin, Karneeva repeated everything she had told Glukhovtsev. To each of her statements Rasputin said little more than “That was all long ago, I don’t recall a thing,” or “I don’t remember a thing from that far back,” or simply “I don’t remember that.”

* * * * * * * * *

I had visited the place several times when the professor was alive, and I was also a student of zoology, especially anthropods, so I should have been quite used to the sight; nevertheless it still gave me the shivers and I was rooted for a moment to the spot. Inside hundreds of bottles lining the walls, eight-legged monsters were running around and spinning their webs. Big Oni-gumo and Joro spiders, yellow with blue stripes; Harvestmen with legs ten times longer than their bodies; Cellar spiders with yellow spots on their backs. The grotesque Kimura spider and trapdoor spiders, Ji-gumo, Ha-gumo, Hirata-gumo, Kogane-gumo; all these different kinds of spider had not been fed for about a month and, having lost most of their flesh, were looking around with shiny, hungry eyes for food. Some jars had not been properly sealed and the escaped spiders had spun their webs on the ceiling and in the corners of the room. Countless numbers of the ghastly creatures were crawling around on the walls and ceiling.

From The Spider by Koga Saburo

* * * * * * * * *

I sauntered through the camp towards my hut. On my left, scattered amongst nim and palm trees and big clumps of hibiscus hedge, were the most important buildings in the camp complex – the garage and workshops, Mallabar’s bungalow, the canteen, the kitchen and storage sheds, and beyond them the now abandoned dormitory of the census workers. Beyond that, over to the right, I could just see, through a screen of plumbago hedge, the round thatched roofs of the cooks’ and small boys’ quarters.

I continued past the huge hagania tree that dominated the centre of the camp and which had given it its name: grosso arvore. The Grosso Arvore Research Centre.

On the other side of the track, opposite the canteen, was Hauser’s laboratory and behind that was the tin cabin he shared with Toshiro. Thirty yards along from the lab was the Vails’ bungalow, not as big as chez Mallabar but prettier, freighted with jasmine and bougainvillea. And then, finally, at the camp’s northern extremity, was my hut. In fact “hut” was a misnomer: I lived in a cross between a tent and a tin shack, a curious dwelling with canvas sides and a corrugated iron roof. I suppose it was fitting that it should go to me, on the principle that the newest arrival should occupy the least permanent building, but I was not displeased with it and was indifferent to what it might say about my status.

* * * * * * * * *

From the Archives…

Imaginings and resonances and pain and small longings and prejudices. They meant nothing against the resolute hardness of the sea…It might have been better, she felt, if there had never been people, if this turning of the world, and the glistening sea, and the morning breeze happened without witnesses, without anyone feeling, or remembering, or dying, or trying to love.

(Click for full review)

* * * * * * * * *

So…are you tempted?

Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

….“…I knew there was no point. I could claw at the rock the rest of my life and get no closer. I knew the truth.”
….“And what truth was that, sir?”
….“They were dead. My woman. My children. All the People. They were dead. Buried alive. All four hundred of them.”
….Although virtually everyone in the courtroom – the judges, the rows of prosecutors, the court personnel, the spectators behind the glass, and the few reporters with them – although almost all of us knew what the answer to that question was going to be, there was nonetheless a terrible drama to hearing the facts spoken aloud. Silence enshrouded the room as if a warning finger had been raised, and all of us, every person, seemed to sink into ourselves, into the crater of fear and loneliness where the face of evil inevitably casts us.
….So here you are, I thought suddenly, as the moment lingered. Now you are here.

* * * * * * * * *

….One moment the sun had shone, then we were abruptly thrust into the devil’s playground as the squall hit us like a shield wall. The ship shuddered, water and wind and gloom smashing us in sudden turmoil and Heahengel swung to the blow, going broadside to the sea and nothing I could do would hold her straight, and I saw Leofric stagger across the deck as the stærbord side went under water. ‘Bail!’ I shouted desperately, ‘bail!’ And then with a noise like thunder, the great sail split into tatters that whipped off the yard, and the ship came slowly upright, but she was low in the water, and I was using all my strength to keep her coming round, creeping round, reversing our course so that I could put her bows into that turmoil of sea and wind, and the men were praying, making the sign of the cross, bailing water, and the remnants of the sail and the broken lines were mad things, ragged demons, and the sudden gale was howling like furies in the rigging and I thought how futile it would be to die at sea so soon after Ragnar had saved my life.

* * * * * * * * *

….‘We are slaves because we are unable to free ourselves,’ Herzen once wrote. If there was one lesson to be drawn from the Russian Revolution it was that the people had failed to emancipate themselves. They had failed to become their own political masters, to free themselves from emperors and become citizens. Kerensky’s speech of 1917, in which he claimed that the Russian people were perhaps no more than ‘rebellious slaves’, was to haunt the revolution in succeeding years. For while the people could destroy the old system, they could not rebuild a new one of their own. None of the democratic organizations established before October 1917 survived more than a few years of Bolshevik rule, at least not in their democratic form. By 1921, if not earlier, the revolution had come full circle, and a new autocracy had been imposed on Russia which in many ways resembled the old one.

* * * * * * * * *

….Across the room, near the window, there was a dressing table fitted with an oval three-piece mirror. The mirror was not quite closed; the upper edges of the glass glinted through the cracks like splinters of ice. In front of the mirror rose a small city of bottles: eau de Cologne, perfume sprays, lavender toilet water, a Bohemian glass goblet, facets glittering in the light… a crumpled pair of brown-lace gloves lay withering like cedar leaves.
….A couch and two chairs, a floor lamp, and a low, delicate table were arranged directly under the window. An embroidery frame, the beginnings of a pattern needled into the silk, was propped on the couch. The vogue for such things had passed long ago, but his mother loved all kinds of handicraft. The pattern seemed to be the wings of some gaudy bird, a parrot maybe, on a background of silver-gray. A pair of stockings lay in a heap next to the embroidery. The shocking embrace of sheer nylon and the imitation damask of the couch gave the room an air of agitation. She must have noticed a run on her way out and changed in a hurry.
….Only dazzling sky and a few fragments of cloud, hard and glossy as enamel in the light bouncing off the water, could be seen through the window.

(Nastiness Alert! Don’t be fooled by this quote – the book has subsequently been abandoned for being one of the nastiest little pieces of nastiness I’ve come across in a long time.)

* * * * * * * * *

From the archives…

….The letters told Eilis little; there was hardly anything personal in them and nothing that sounded like anyone’s own voice. Nonetheless, as she read them over and over, she forgot for a moment where she was and she could picture her mother in the kitchen taking her Basildon Bond notepad and her envelopes and setting out to write a proper letter with nothing crossed out.

(Click for full review)

* * * * * * * * *

So…are you tempted?

House of Names by Colm Tóibín

Dysfunctional family…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

When Agamemnon decides to sacrifice his daughter to the gods to gain their support for his war, his wife Clytemnestra plots a bloody and horrific revenge. In her grief and rage, she doesn’t consider the profound effects her actions will have on her surviving children – Electra, silently watching as her mother finds herself at the mercy of her lover and fellow conspirator, Aegisthus; and young Orestes, exiled from his home and facing many dangers as he fights for survival.

This retelling of the Greek tragedy is given in three voices. Clytemnestra comes first and it’s through her eyes, the eyes of a mother, that we see Agamemnon’s trickery and the horror of Iphigenia’s sacrifice. Tóibín shows us the full brutality of both Agamemnon’s act and Clytemnestra’s revenge in all their blood-soaked horror. Clytemnestra tells us what she thought, said, did, but it’s in the gaps between that the reader learns how she felt – helpless in the face of a savagery she shares. Agamemnon’s murder is frighteningly well done, but then Clytemnestra finds herself not the mistress but the property of Aegisthus, a man revealed as a cold and cruel tyrant.

None of us who had travelled, however, guessed the truth for one second, even though some of the others standing around, maybe even most of them, must have known it. But not one of them gave a sign, not a single sign.

The sky remained blue, the sun hot in the sky, and the gods – oh yes, the gods! – seemed to be smiling on our family that day, on the bride-to-be and her young brother, on me, and on her father as he stood in the embrace of love, as he would stand eventually in the victory of battle with his army triumphant. Yes, the gods smiled that day as we came in all innocence to help Agamemnon execute his plan.

On the night of the murder, Orestes is kidnapped and held with the sons of other important men, all hostages to ensure their families’ compliance with the new regime. After some time, Orestes falls under the influence of Leander, who persuades him to escape along with a third boy, Mitros. Orestes’ section tells of the boys’ lives as they find ways to survive until they reach manhood. Again, there are some scenes of brutality but there is also love in this section as the boys, separated from their families, create a kind of new family of their own.

I found these first two sections excellent – Clytemnestra’s full of bitterness and rage, Orestes’ softer and quieter despite the episodes of violence. Unfortunately, after that point the book fell away for me rather. The third section is seen from Electra’s point of view. Ignored by her mother and grieving her father, Electra has inherited the family desire for revenge, but somehow I didn’t find this as convincing as Clytemnestra’s vengefulness. And when Orestes returns as a man, I fear I found him rather pale and insipid. Tóibín’s writing is always rather understated when it comes to emotions, and that usually works wonderfully for me – his descriptions of the actions and thoughts of his characters is enough to allow me to feel I understand the emotions that are driving them without Tóibín having to spell them out. And that’s how I felt about Clytemnestra and the younger Orestes. But with Electra and the older Orestes, the understatement is less successful, leaving me struggling to empathise with either.

Perhaps the days before her death, and the way death was given to her, are nothing in the place where she is. Perhaps the gods keep the memory of death locked up in their store, jealously guarded. Instead, the gods release feelings that were once pure or sweet. Feelings that mattered once. They allow love to matter since love can do no harm to the dead.

They approach each other, my father and my sister, their movements hesitant. I am not sure that, once they have seen each other, they still see me. I am not sure that the living interest them. They have too many needs that belong to themselves only; they have too much to share.

Tóibín’s writing is excellent as always, especially powerful when showing the brutality in the earlier passages. But I found the latter half lacked that power and that, added to my lack of sympathy for the younger characters, meant I was left rather unmoved by their eventual fates. Of course, it’s an essential read for any fan of Tóibín, and it’s quite probable that my slight disappointment is largely caused by my overly high expectations. But it’s not one I would recommend as an introduction to his work – for me, it doesn’t quite reach the heights of many of his earlier books.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Scribner.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

….In my memory they slid from a bank of sea mist, and perhaps they did, but memory is a faulty thing and my other images of that day are of a clear, cloudless sky, so perhaps there was no mist, but it seems to me that one moment the sea was empty and the next there were three ships coming from the south.
….Beautiful things. They appeared to rest weightless on the ocean, and when their oars dug into the waves they skimmed the water. Their prows and sterns curled high and were tipped with gilded beasts, serpents and dragons, and it seemed to me that on that far off summer’s day the three boats danced on the water, propelled by the rise and fall of the silver wings of their oar banks. The sun flashed off the wet blades, splinters of light, then the oars dipped, were tugged and the beast-headed boats surged and I stared entranced.

* * * * * * * * *

….I wanted to ask her then if she did not remember. I wanted to ask if the manner of her death had been erased from her memory, if she lived now as if those things had not occurred.
….Perhaps the days before her death, and the way death was given to her, are nothing in the place where she is. Perhaps the gods keep the memory of death locked up in their store, jealously guarded. Instead, the gods release feelings that were once pure or sweet. Feelings that mattered once. They allow love to matter since love can do no harm to the dead.
….They approach each other, my father and my sister, their movements hesitant. I am not sure that, once they have seen each other, they still see me. I am not sure that the living interest them. They have too many needs that belong to themselves only; they have too much to share.

* * * * * * * * *

….The trains of the London and West Coast Railway run over the lines of another company as far as this town, which should have been reached by the special rather before six o’clock. At a quarter after six considerable surprise and some consternation were caused amongst the officials at Liverpool by the receipt of a telegram from Manchester to say that it had not yet arrived. An inquiry directed to St. Helens, which is a third of the way between the two cities, elicited the following reply:-
….‘To James Bland, Superintendent, Central L. & W. C., Liverpool. – Special passed here at 4.52, well up to time. – Dowser, St. Helens.’
….This telegram was received at 6.40. At 6.50 a second message was received from Manchester:-
….‘No sign of special as advised by you.’
….And then ten minutes later a third, more bewildering:-
….‘Presume some mistake as to proposed running of special. Local train from St. Helens timed to follow it has just arrived and has seen nothing of it. Kindly wire advices. – Manchester.’

From The Lost Special by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

* * * * * * * * *

….By 1921, there were twice as many bureaucrats as workers in Russia. They were the social base of the regime. This was not a Dictatorship of the Proletariat but a Dictatorship of the Bureaucracy. Moscow, in Lenin’s words, was ‘bloated with officials’: it housed nearly a quarter of a million of them, one-third of the total workforce in the city by the end of 1920. The centre of Moscow became one vast block of offices as committees were piled on top of councils and departments on top of commissions.
….Perhaps a third of the bureaucracy was employed in the regulation of the planned economy. It was an absurd situation: while the economy came to a standstill, its bureaucracy flourished. The country was desperately short of fuel but there was an army of bureaucrats to regulate its almost non-existent distribution. There was no paper in the shops but a mountain of it in the Soviet offices (90 per cent of the paper made in Russia during the first four years of Soviet rule was consumed by the bureaucracy).

* * * * * * * * *

….I broke off. He was looking at me with a cold, glassy stare, as no doubt he had looked at the late lions, leopards and gnus whose remains were to be viewed on the walls of the outer hall. Fellows at the Drones who have tried to touch Oofy Prosser, the club millionaire, for a trifle to see them through till next Wednesday have described him to me as looking just like that.
….‘Oh, so that’s it!’ he said, and even Pop Bassett could not have spoken more nastily. ‘I’ve got your number now. I’ve met your sort all over the world. You won’t get any five pounds, my man. You sit where you are and don’t move. I’m going to call the police.’
….‘It will not be necessary, sir,’ said a respectful voice, and Jeeves entered through the french window.
….His advent drew from me a startled goggle and, I rather think, a cry of amazement. Last man I’d expected to see, and how he had got here defeated me. I’ve sometimes felt that he must dematerialize himself like those fellows in India – fakirs, I think they’re called – who fade into thin air in Bombay and turn up five minutes later in Calcutta or points west with all the parts reassembled.

* * * * * * * * *

So…are you tempted?

Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

.I gave orders that the bodies should remain in the open under the sun a day or two until the sweetness gave way to stench. And I liked the flies that came, their little bodies perplexed and brave, buzzing after their feast, upset by the continuing hunger they felt in themselves, a hunger I had come to know too and had come to appreciate.
.We are all hungry now. Food merely whets our appetite, it sharpens our teeth; meat makes us ravenous for more meat, as death is ravenous for more death. Murder makes us ravenous, fills the soul with satisfaction that is fierce and then luscious enough to create a taste for further satisfaction.
.A knife piercing the soft flesh under the ear, with intimacy and precision, and then moving across the throat as soundlessly as the sun moves across the sky, but with greater speed and zeal, and then his dark blood flowing with the same inevitable hush as dark night falls on familiar things.

* * * * * * * * *

….I watched people pass by, liked the way their voices filled the air, made everything feel whole, and I felt my lips turn a smile as birds jumped over and under tree branches. For a moment I thought of capturing them, placing them in my pigeon aviary in the barn. How lucky they’d be with me to look after them. I thought of Father, my stomach growled hunger and I went to the pail of water by the well, let my hands sink into the cool sip sip. I brought my hands to mouth and began drinking, lapping with my tongue. It was soft, delicate. Everything slowed down. I saw a dead pigeon lying grey and still in the yard and my stomach murmured. I looked into the sun. I thought of Father, tried to remember the last words I said to him. I took a pear from the arbour, walked back inside.

* * * * * * * * *

….Why has the murder of the Romanovs assumed such significance in the history of the revolution? It could be said that they were only a few individuals, whereas revolutions are about the millions. This is the argument of Marxist historians, who have tended to treat this episode as a minor side-show to the main event. E. H. Carr, for example, gave it no more than a single sentence in his three-volume history of the revolution. But this is to miss the deeper significance of the murder. It was a declaration of the Terror. It was a statement that from now on individuals would count for nothing in the civil war. Trotsky had once said: “We must put an end once and for all to the papist-Quaker babble about the sanctity of human life.” And that is what the Cheka [secret police] did.

* * * * * * * * *

.‘If I might make a suggestion, sir?’
.‘Press on, Jeeves.’
.‘Would it not be possible for you to go to Totleigh Towers, but to decline to carry out Miss Byng’s wishes?’
.I weighed this. It was, I could see, a thought.
.‘Issue a nolle prosequi, you mean? Tell her to go and boil her head?’
.‘Precisely, sir.’
.I eyed him reverently.
.‘Jeeves,’ I said, ‘as always, you have found the way. I’ll wire Miss Bassett and ask if I can come, and I’ll wire Aunt Dahlia that I can’t give her lunch as I’m leaving town, and I’ll tell Stiffy that whatever she has in mind she gets no service and co-operation from me. Yes, Jeeves, you’ve hit it! I’ll go to Totleigh, though the flesh creeps at the prospect. Pop Bassett will be there, Spode will be there, Stiffy will be there, the dog Bartholomew will be there. It makes one wonder why so much fuss has been made about those half-a-league half-a-league half-a-league-onward bimbos who rode into the Valley of Death. They weren’t going to find Pop Bassett at the other end. Ah well, let us hope for the best.’
.‘The only course to pursue, sir.’
.‘Stiff upper lip, Jeeves, what?’
.‘Indubitably, sir. That, if I may say so, is the spirit.’

* * * * * * * * *

From the Archives…

.I found each wave, instead of being the big, smooth glassy mountain it seems from shore, was full of peaks and smooth plains and valleys. Very often a school of dolphins appeared among these slopes and summits, giving the impression – thanks to the curved lines of their mouths – that they kept us company, and leaped in and out of the waves, for no reasons except their own pleasure and our entertainment. Sometimes we watched a piece of driftwood, or a tonsured head that turned out to be a coconut, tumble over and over in the swell: no great thing in itself, but in the heat of midday, with a soft wind blowing, and the deck sweetly rolling, enough to induce a kind of trance.

(Click for full review.)

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So…are you tempted?

TBR Thursday 117…

Episode 117…

And still I have managed to avoid the Big 200! I seem to be working on a one in, one out basis at the moment, since for nearly a month now the TBR has remained stable at 196. There is some progress though – the number of outstanding review copies has dropped 2 to 35 – woohoo! That’s a good enough excuse for reward chocolate for me!!

Here are a few that I should get to soon…

Crime

Courtesy of Amazon Vine. I never got around to reading Laline Paull’s acclaimed first book, The Bees, though I really wanted to – still do. So I was pleased to be offered a copy of her new one – this time I have no excuse…

The Blurb says: It’s the day after tomorrow and the Arctic sea ice has melted. While global business carves up the new frontier, cruise ships race each other to ever-rarer wildlife sightings. The passengers of the Vanir have come seeking a polar bear. What they find is even more astonishing: a dead body.

It is Tom Harding, lost in an accident three years ago and now revealed by the melting ice of Midgard glacier. Tom had come to Midgard to help launch the new venture of his best friend of thirty years, Sean Cawson, a man whose business relies on discretion and powerful connections – and who was the last person to see him alive. Their friendship had been forged by a shared obsession with Arctic exploration. And although Tom’s need to save the world often clashed with Sean’s desire to conquer it, Sean has always believed that underneath it all, they shared the same goals.

But as the inquest into Tom’s death begins, the choices made by both men – in love and in life – are put on the stand. And when cracks appear in the foundations of Sean’s glamorous world, he is forced to question what price he has really paid for a seat at the establishment’s table. Just how deep do the lies go?

* * * * *

Fiction

Courtesy of NetGalley. I always love Tóibín’s Irish-set novels, but the book that introduced me to him was the wonderful The Testament of Mary. So I’m delighted to see him go back into antiquity again for this one…

The Blurb says: “I have been acquainted with the smell of death.” So begins Clytemnestra’s tale of her own life in ancient Mycenae, the legendary Greek city from which her husband King Agamemnon left when he set sail with his army for Troy. Clytemnestra rules Mycenae now, along with her new lover Aegisthus, and together they plot the bloody murder of Agamemnon on the day of his return after nine years at war.

In House of Names, Colm Tóibín brings a modern sensibility and language to an ancient classic, and gives this extraordinary character new life, so that we not only believe Clytemnestra’s thirst for revenge, but applaud it. He brilliantly inhabits the mind of one of Greek myth’s most powerful villains to reveal the love, lust, and pain she feels. Told in fours parts, this is a fiercely dramatic portrait of a murderess, who will herself be murdered by her own son, Orestes. It is Orestes’ story, too: his capture by the forces of his mother’s lover Aegisthus, his escape and his exile. And it is the story of the vengeful Electra, who watches over her mother and Aegisthus with cold anger and slow calculation, until, on the return of her brother, she has the fates of both of them in her hands.

* * * * *

Crime

Courtesy of NetGalley again! I loved Erin Kelly’s The Ties That Bind, so despite my legendary iron willpower I couldn’t resist her new one, especially after reading Cleo’s fabulous review

The Blurb says: In the summer of 1999, Kit and Laura travel to a festival in Cornwall to see a total eclipse of the sun. Kit is an eclipse chaser; Laura has never seen one before. Young and in love, they are certain this will be the first of many they’ll share. But in the hushed moments after the shadow passes, Laura interrupts a man and a woman. She knows that she saw something terrible. The man denies it. It is her word against his.

The victim seems grateful. Months later, she turns up on their doorstep like a lonely stray. But as her gratitude takes a twisted turn, Laura begins to wonder—did she trust the wrong person?

15 years later, Kit and Laura are living under assumed names and completely off the digital grid: no Facebook, only rudimentary cell phones, not in any directories. But as the truth catches up to them, they realize they can no longer keep the past in the past.

* * * * *

Crime on Audio

Courtesy of Audible via MidasPR. This falls somewhere between a short story and a novella in length – just over an hour in terms of listening. It’s been many years since I read the China Thrillers, so I’m intrigued to see Peter May resurrect the characters…

The Blurb says: Li Yan and Margaret Campbell return in a new story, years after the dramatic conclusion of Chinese Whispers.

‘I saw your missing girl at a ghost wedding last week. She was the bride.’

It has been a whirlwind few years for Li Yan and Margaret Campbell. Nowadays, both are busy juggling their huge professional workloads – Li as the newly promoted chief of Beijing’s serious crime squad and Campbell as lecturer at the University of Public Security – with the day-to-day raising of their young son, Li Jon.

When a desperate mother appeals to Campbell’s own maternal instincts, Li agrees to look into the disappearance of a 17-year-old Beijing girl, Jiang Meilin. Yet Li’s investigation soon turns from a favour into a full-scale murder enquiry. And when he receives an anonymous note, he learns Jiang Meilin’s death is tied to a dangerous underground trade and a dark marital rite from China’s past.

* * * * *

NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads.

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So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?

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TBR Thursday 79… and End of Month Round-Up

People’s Choice 10 – The Result…

 

Well! The People’s Choice Begorrathon Special was exciting! One book raced into a clear read from the beginning and held off all challengers as it stormed towards the finishing line. So I hereby declare…

This Week’s Winner…

 

instructions for a heatwave

The Blurb – It’s July 1976. In London, it hasn’t rained for months, gardens are filled with aphids, water comes from a standpipe, and Robert Riordan tells his wife Gretta that he’s going round the corner to buy a newspaper. He doesn’t come back. The search for Robert brings Gretta’s children — two estranged sisters and a brother on the brink of divorce — back home, each with different ideas as to where their father might have gone. None of them suspects that their mother might have an explanation that even now she cannot share. Maggie O’Farrell’s sixth book is the work of an outstanding novelist at the height of her powers.

Thanks to Naomi at Consumed by Ink for the review that brought this book to my attention.

* * * * * * *

And thanks to all who voted! It wouldn’t be the People’s Choice without you!

The book will be added to my TBR – now all I have to do is find time to read it!

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TBR Quarterly Report…

 

At the New Year I added up the full extent of the horror of the TBR, including the bits I usually hide. So time for another count to see how I’m doing…

TBR March 2016

Woohoo! The mathematically astute amongst you will note that although the official TBR has gone up, the overall total has gone down! This is due to books moving off the wishlist onto the TBR – see? I’m the Queen of Willpower and Spreadsheets – I’m so proud of myself. If I continue at this rate, the TBR will be clear by… 2038!

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Reading Ireland Month – #begorrathon16…

 

I have thoroughly enjoyed participating in the Begorrathon throughout March, and I hope you’ve enjoyed it too. I’d like to thank Cathy at 746 Books for creating this event and for all the hard work she’s done to make the bookish side of it a huge success. Not only has she inspired people all over the blogosphere to participate, but she’s pulled all the posts together to make them easy to access – here’s the link. And she has been the major contributor herself, with a series of brilliant posts that have introduced me to loads of new authors and taught me a lot about Irish literature.

Well done, Cathy – take a bow!!

 

I also must thank Cathy for her great giveaway, WHICH I WON!! Look what I WON!!!

* * * * *

the visitorThe Visitor is the haunting tale of Anastasia King, who, at the age of twenty-two, returns to her grandmother’s house in Dublin – the very house where she grew up – after six long years away. She has been in Paris, comforting her disgraced and dying mother, who ran away from a disastrous marriage to Anastasia’s late father, her grandmother’s only son. It is a story of Dublin and the unkind, ungenerous, emotionally unreachable side of the Irish temperament. Recently found in a university archive, The Visitor was written in the mid-1940s but was never published. This miraculous literary discovery deepens the oeuvre of Maeve Brennan and confirms her status as one of the best Irish writers of stories since Joyce.

* * * * *

the long gaze backThe Long Gaze Back, edited by Sinéad Gleeson, is an exhilarating anthology of short stories by some of the most gifted women writers this island has ever produced. Taken together, the collected works of these writers reveal an enrapturing, unnerving, and piercingly beautiful mosaic of a lively literary landscape. The Long Gaze Back features 22 new stories by some of the most talented Irish women writers working today. The anthology presents an inclusive and celebratory portrait of the high calibre of contemporary literature in Ireland.

These stories run the gamut from heartbreaking to humorous, but each leaves a lasting impression. They chart the passions, obligations, trials and tribulations of a variety of vividly-drawn characters with unflinching honesty and relentless compassion. These are stories to savour.

Aren’t I lucky? 😀

 

* * * * * * *

The Around the World in 80 Books Challenge – #AW80Books

Hosted by Sarah and Lucy at the wonderful Hard Book Habit…

Well, having spent the entire month in Ireland, unsurprisingly that’s the only destination I’m adding this month, and of all the books I’ve read the one I’m going to choose for this challenge is…

the heather blazing

Click to see the review

So here’s the summary to date…

780px-Around_the_World_in_Eighty_Days_map

The Main Journey

  1. London  – Martin Chuzzlewit
  2. Orient Express
  3. FranceThe Sisters of Versailles
  4. Alps
  5. Venice
  6. Brindisi
  7. Mediterranean Sea
  8. Suez
  9. Egypt
  10. Red Sea/Arabian Sea
  11. Bombay
  12. Calcutta
  13. Kholby
  14. Elephant Travel
  15. Allahabad
  16. Indian Ocean/ South China Sea
  17. Hong Kong
  18. Shanghai
  19. Yokohama
  20. Pacific
  21. San Francisco
  22. Sioux lands
  23. Omaha
  24. New York – I Am No One
  25. Atlantic Ocean
  26. Queenstown (Cobh) Ireland
  27. London – The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

 

I’ve got books planned for some of the gaps, but am still open to suggestions for any of the places highlighted in red. Any genre…

The Detours

That leaves 53 spots for me to randomly tour the world, so here’s where I’ve been so far…

  1. The Hebrides – Coffin Road
  2. Florida – Their Eyes Were Watching God
  3. Iceland – Snowblind
  4. Himalayas – Black Narcissus
  5. Ireland – The Heather Blazing

 

9 down, 71 to go!

 

* * * * *

Phew! It’s been a fun month…thanks for sharing it with me!

Film of the Book: Brooklyn

Directed by John Crowley (2015)

 

brooklyn 1

From the book review:

This book, set in the 1950s, takes us from small town Ireland to Brooklyn in the company of Eilis Lacey, a young girl forced into economic migration through lack of employment and the expectations of her family. Though told in the third person, we see through Eilis’ eyes as we get to know about her life in Ireland with the mother and sister she loves, with friends and roots in a community she has known all her life; then we follow her as she is transplanted to Brooklyn, where she has the support of the Irish community, still strongly under the sway of the Roman Catholic church, but where she is so far away from her family, friendless and emotionally alone.

You can read the full book review by clicking here.

 

Film of the Book

 

 

I’m going to start by saying I think this is a wonderful film that gets Tóibín’s quiet emotionalism and gentle humour perfectly. The acting is brilliant all round and Saoirse Ronan’s central performance as Eilis Lacey thoroughly deserves all the awards nominations it has received. It’s beautifully filmed. Although I understand most of the Brooklyn scenes were actually shot in Canada, they nonetheless feel entirely authentic, but the Ireland scenes are fabulous, showing to full effect the gorgeous scenery and lush greenness of the Emerald Isle. It’s a special treat that some of the scenes are shot in Toibin’s own birthplace of Enniscorthy, the place where so many of his novels are set.

However, this slot is all about comparison and, although the film sticks very closely to the plot of the novel, for me there were some significant differences in emphasis that somewhat changed what I thought of as the central themes.

(There may be some fairly major spoilers ahead – I shall try to be oblique, but if you are proposing to read the book or watch the film in the near future, I suggest you may not want to read the rest of this post.)

Fiona Glascott, Jane Brennan and Saoirse Ronan as Rose, Mary and Eilis Lacey
Fiona Glascott, Jane Brennan and Saoirse Ronan as Rose, Mary and Eilis Lacey

There are four things in particular that I feel change the interpretation – the speed with which the film gets her to Brooklyn, Eilis’ family, the love affairs and, most of all, Eilis’ personality.

In the book, much more time is spent in Ireland before Eilis boards the ship for America, during which we see her as having very little say in her own future. It is the 1950s, opportunities in Ireland are scarce and many of the young people are forced away from the country to look for employment. Eilis herself, however, doesn’t want to go and isn’t consulted when her sister and mother decide what is best for her. It gives a real and believable picture of a society where young people were still expected to conform to decisions made for them by parents and community, before the rebelliousness and individualism of the sixties had begun. The film, constrained no doubt by time, hints too quickly at this, thus missing some of the deep sorrow of forced migration. It feels as if Eilis is going to America to look for opportunity, rather than going from Ireland because of lack of opportunity – a subtle difference but, I felt, an important one.

The wonderful Julie Walters is in fine form as Eilis' landlady in Brooklyn, Mrs Kehoe.
The wonderful Julie Walters is on fine form as Eilis’ landlady in Brooklyn, Mrs Kehoe.

In the film, Eilis’ family consists of herself, her mother and her sister. In the book, she has brothers, who have also been forced from home and are now living and making a life for themselves in Liverpool, as so many Irish people did. They don’t appear much in the book, but I felt they were important for a couple of reasons. Firstly, they provide a much wider picture of the Irish diaspora. Secondly, they are much closer to home and within relatively easy visiting distance. This means Eilis’ mother is not so solitary as the film makes her seem when tragedy strikes. She has family around her – it is, in fact, Eilis, so far away, who is completely isolated and alone. And when Eilis makes her final decision, in the film it seems so harsh because her mother is so alone, but in the book, her mother seems more selfish, and we see how it is daughters rather than sons who are expected to make sacrifices for their parents. (Also, the letter to Eilis from one of her brothers after the tragedy is the single most moving part of the book for me, and obviously it disappeared from the film along with him.)

begorrathon 2016

In the film, the love affairs are central – in the book, I felt they were less so. The focus of the book is on homesickness and the gradual creation of a new life. Obviously, Tony, the American love interest, is part of that, but Eilis is not bowled over by him the way she is in the film. Again the differences are subtle, but Eilis almost clung to Tony because of her loneliness and one was never quite sure of the depth of her feeling towards him. The same could be said about Jim – his plot purpose in the book was not to rend her heart between two lovers, but to provide a way for her to stay in Ireland.

Emory Cohen as Eilis' American love interest, Tony Fiorello
Emory Cohen as Eilis’ American love interest, Tony Fiorello

That may make Eilis sound cool and pragmatic, which would be about right. In the film she is a passionate, confident young woman. In the book, she is a passive heroine, a young girl, trying to please everyone, and constantly swayed by people older or with stronger personalities than her own. In fact, the book is exactly about her growing up, maturing to the point where she finally begins to make her own decisions – and, in both book and film, even her final decision is forced on her rather than being made of her own volition. In the book, that made sense because of the passive nature of her character – what else could she possibly have done? The book Eilis would never have considered withstanding a scandal – the film Eilis, it seems to me, could have found other options had she wanted. In the film, this is a girl torn between two lovers, but in the book, she’s torn between the circumscribed but safe certainties of life in her old country and the risks and opportunities in her new world. In the film, we know that love conquers all. In the book, as Eilis made her last voyage, this reader wasn’t so sure…

The differences are subtle, of tone rather than of story and, as always, come down to a matter of personal interpretation. None of the above should be seen as criticism, however. It is merely a comparison. I repeat – a brilliant film that gets my highest recommendation!

banner-brooklyn-Brooklyn_Film_844x476.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

.

But for its added depth and subtlety

The Winner in the Book v Film Battle is…

 

brooklyn cover

.

 

THE BOOK!

 

 

The Heather Blazing by Colm Tóibín

Weighed in the balances…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

the heather blazingOn the last day of the legal term, High Court judge Eamon Redmond will deliver a judgement and then head off for the summer to Cush on the coast of County Wexford, where he has spent all his summers since childhood. Outwardly he is a successful man, well respected in the country, an advisor to the government, and someone who takes the responsibility of his position seriously. But he is also reserved, his life ruled by order, and somewhat remote even from his closest family. As the summer progresses, he finds events in the present force him to revisit and re-assess his past.

Like so many of Tóibín’s books, this is almost entirely a character study with very little in the way of plot. Generally speaking, that doesn’t work for me, but Tóibín’s deceptively plain prose and in-depth understanding of the people and communities he’s writing about exert an almost hypnotic effect on me, drawing me into the lives of the people he offers up for inspection – characters so entirely real and well-drawn that it becomes hard after a time to think of them as in any way fictional. This effect is magnified by his siting of so many of his novels in and around the town of Enniscorthy, where Tóibín himself grew up – a place whose culture and society I have gradually come to feel I understand almost as intimately as my own hometown.

History plays a major role in this book, both personal and political. Eamon’s mother died in childbirth leaving him an only child to be brought up by his father and extended family. His grandfather was involved in the 1916 Easter Rising and his father too played a part, albeit small, in the troubled history of the country. Through them, Eamon is introduced early to the politics of Fianna Fáil, and the opportunity in his late teens to make a speech in front of the revered leader of the uprising, Éamon de Valera, gains him the support that sets him on the path to his present position. Yet now decades later, he is a pillar of the Establishment, delivering judgements on Nationalist terrorists.

begorrathon 2016

The same dichotomy exists in his personal life. The judgement he is about to give is on a schoolgirl, an unmarried mother, who wishes to go back to school. The Catholic school has expelled her on the grounds that her return would send a dangerous moral message to their other pupils. His musings show his doubts over the religious aspects built into the Constitution, and in his own ability to decide right and wrong. He considers using his judgement to redefine the family as it was understood when the Constitution was written, but in the end, through a kind of cowardice, he decides in favour of the school. It is a feature of his remoteness that he gives no consideration to the fact that his own daughter is pregnant and unmarried when reaching his decision – this is a man whose work and family are kept in strictly separate compartments.

Tóibín’s prose is always understated, relying on precision and clarity rather than poetic flourishes for its effect. Despite this, there is a deep emotionalism in his work, an utter truthfulness that can be, in its quietness, as devastating as any great overblown work of drama. In a book full of parallels, Eamon’s story is headed and tailed by two commonplace tragedies – his father’s stroke while Eamon was still at school, and his wife’s stroke and subsequent death in the present day. His early life is beautifully observed, with scenes such as the family gathering at Christmas showing all the depth of family and community in small town Ireland. And his courtship of Carmel, his future wife, is no Romeo and Juliet affair – it’s a truthful account of two young people coming together who share many of the same views on life and are able to compromise on the rest.

Colm Tóibín
Colm Tóibín

It is in understanding Eamon’s childhood and early years that we come to understand the adult man, and in a sense his life and family history mirrors that of Ireland too – the tumultuous century of rebellions and civil strife drawing towards a quieter ending as Tóibín was writing in the early ’90s; the past not forgotten, the future not yet certain, the direction in the hands of those in power, many of whom would have to make major shifts in their political stance to achieve a hope of settled peace. Tóibín is never overtly political in his writing, but his deep insight into this society of Enniscorthy, built up layer on layer with each book he sets there, provides a microcosm for us to see the slow process of change taking place, the small shifts in attitude that gradually make the big political adjustments possible.

In truth, Eamon’s story didn’t resonate with me quite as deeply as Tóibín’s women, but I suspect that’s to do with my own gender rather than the book. Sometimes my lack of knowledge of Irish history left me feeling I wasn’t getting the full nuance of parts of the story. But it is another wonderful character study, moving and insightful, that adds a further dimension to Tóibín’s portrayal of this community. Coincidentally, I followed immediately on my reading of this book with Joyce’s Dubliners, and began to feel that, although Tóibín is working on small-town life and in full-length novels, in some ways his books have the same effect as Joyce’s stories – each one concentrating on a single aspect, but together building to give a complete and profound picture of a complexly intertwined society.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

This post is part of Reading Ireland Month 2016 – #begorrathon16 – being jointly hosted by Cathy at 746 Books and Niall at Raging Fluff.

TBR Thursday 75…

The Begorrathon special…

 

A dramatic drop in the TBR this week! Down two to 160!! At that rate, I’ll have run out of things to read in less than two years!*

*(Later that same day… 2 approved by NetGalley. Back up to 162. Hurrah! My fears of running out were premature!)

begorrathon 2016

March is Begorrathon time (posh name: Reading Ireland Month 2016) – an event celebrating all things Irish, run jointly by Cathy at 746 Books and Raging Fluff. Though books are a big part of it, posts are also welcome on anything Irish – music, film, restaurants, recipes, your personal shillelagh collection, etc. For all the details, please pop over to Cathy’s blog – here’s the link – where you’ll find it’s the best sort of challenge – very relaxed, minimum rules, maximum fun!

So I’ve trawled through the TBR and boosted all the Irish books up the list in preparation. Here are the ones I hope to read and review during the Begorrathon… might not get through them all, what with review books and GAN Quests and New Year’s Resolutions and all, but we’ll see…

Fiction

 

the heather blazingI already included this in last week’s TBR Thursday, but when Cathy reminded me about The Begorrathon, I put it back to March.

The Blurb – The sea is slowly eating into the land, and the hill with the old watchtower has completely disappeared. The nearest house has crumbled and fallen into the sea. It is Ireland in the late twentieth century. Eamon Redmond is a judge in the Irish High Court. Obsessed all his life by the letter and spirit of the law, he is just beginning to discover how painfully unconnected he is from other human beings. With effortless fluency, Colm Tóibín reconstructs the history of Eamon’s relationships – with his father, his first “girl”, his wife, and the children who barely know him. He gives us a family as minutely realized as any of John McGahern’s, and he writes about Eamon’s affection for the landscape of his childhood on the east coast of Ireland with such skill that the land itself becomes a character. The result is a novel that ensnares us with its emotional intensity and dazzles with its crystalline prose.

* * * * *

 

the dublinersOK, I’ve been putting it off long enough – time for some Joyce! Jilanne recommended this one to me so long ago it’s embarrassing – she says The Dead is, perhaps, her favourite story of all time…

The BlurbAlthough James Joyce began these stories of Dublin life in 1904, when he was 22, and had completed them by the end of 1907, they remained unpublished until 1914 — victims of Edwardian squeamishness. Their vivid, tightly focused observations of the life of Dublin’s poorer classes, their unconventional themes, coarse language, and mention of actual people and places made publishers of the day reluctant to undertake sponsorship. Today, however, the stories are admired for their intense and masterly dissection of “dear dirty Dublin,” and for the economy and grace with which Joyce invested this youthful fiction.

* * * * *

 

let the great world spinThis should really be in with the GAN Quest books, but I didn’t include it in the current batch and I’m tired of waiting. But I’ll still be reading it with an eye on whether it shapes up as a Great American Novel. It sneaks into The Begorrathon too, though, since McCann is Irish. DesertDweller has recommended it to me twice, so it must be good!

The Blurb says: New York, August 1974. A man is walking the sky. The city stands still in awe. Between the newly built Twin Towers the man is striding, twirling and showboating his way through the air. One hundred and ten stories below him, the lives of eight strangers spin towards each other…

Set against a time of sweeping political and social change, from the backlash to the Vietnam War and the lingering sceptre of the oil crisis to the beginnings of the Internet – a time that hauntingly mirrors the present time – these disparate lives will collide in the shadow of one reckless and beautiful act, and be transformed for ever.

Weaving together themes of love, loss, belonging, duty and human striving, Let the Great World Spin celebrates the effervescent spirit of an age and the small beauties of everyday life. At once intimate and magnificent, elegant and astonishing, it is a lyrical masterpiece from a storyteller who continues to use the wide world as his canvas.

* * * * *

Crime

 

the cold cold groundJust about every crime blogger has recommended Adrian McKinty at one time or another – most recently Carol at Reading Writing and Riesling. This one’s been sitting on my Kindle since August 2013 – better read it before it biodegrades…

The Blurb says: Featuring Catholic cop Sean Duffy whose outsider status in the mostly Protestant RUC makes it as hard to do his job as the criminals he’s fighting, this is the start of a new series set in Troubles-era Belfast. A body is found in a burnt out car. Another is discovered hanging from a tree. Could this be Northern Ireland’s first serial killer, or another paramilitary feud?

 

* * * * *

.

in the woodsAnother one that’s been recommended by loads of people, but it was Lady Fancifull that persuaded me in the end…

The Blurb says: ‘You’re twelve years old. It’s the summer holiday. You’re playing in the woods with your two best friends. Something happens. Something terrible. And the other two are never seen again.’

Twenty years on, Rob Ryan – the child who came back – is a detective in the Dublin police force. He’s changed his name. No one knows about his past. Even he has no memory of what happened that day.

Then a little girl’s body is found at the site of the old tragedy and Rob is drawn back into the mystery. For him and his DI partner, Cassie, every lead comes with its own sinister undercurrents. The victim’s apparently normal family is hiding layers of secrets. Rob’s own private enquiries are taking a toll on his mind. And every trail leads inexorably back . . . into the woods.

* * * * *

Film

 

brooklynLoved the book – how will the movie compare? I’ve heard only good things about this, and it comes out on DVD at the end of Feb – they must have heard about The Begorrathon…

The Blurb says: Saoirse Ronan and Domhnall Gleeson star in this romantic drama adapted from the novel by Colm Tóibín. Set in the 1950s, the story follows young Irish woman Ellis Lacey (Ronan) as she travels to New York City in search of a better life. Initially homesick, she begins to adjust to her new surroundings with the help of Italian-American Tony Fiorello (Emory Cohen) with whom she becomes romantically involved. After news of a family crisis, Ellis returns to Ireland where she enjoys spending time back in her hometown and becomes acquainted with a young man, Jim Farrell (Gleeson), finding herself torn between two very different paths. The cast also includes Jim Broadbent and Julie Walters. The film was nominated for three Academy Awards including Best Picture.

NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads.

* * * * *

So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?

 

Are you joining in The Begorrathon? You know you want to…

TBR Thursday 74…

The People’s Choice 9…The Result!

 

Ooh, last week’s poll was exciting!! For a good while The Secret River was the main challenger, then it was overtaken near the end by In The Shadow of the Glacier! But, right from the beginning, one got its nose in front and kept it there all the way to the line. So I hereby declare…

This Week’s Winner…

 

a heart so white

 

The Blurb – A Heart so White begins as, in the middle of a family lunch, Teresa, just married, goes to the bathroom, unbuttons her blouse and shoots herself in the heart. What made her kill herself immediately after her honeymoon? Years later, this mystery fascinates the young newlywed Juan, whose father was married to Teresa before he married Juan’s mother. As Juan edges closer to the truth, he begins to question his own relationships, and whether he really wants to know what happened. Haunting and unsettling, A Heart So White is a breathtaking portrayal of two generations, two marriages, the relentless power of the past and the terrible price of knowledge.

Thanks to MarinaSofia at findingtimetowrite for the review that brought this book to my attention.

 * * * * * * *

And thanks to all who voted! It wouldn’t be the People’s Choice without you!

The book will be added to my TBR – now all I have to do is find time to read it!

* * * * * * *

Great news! The TBR hasn’t gone up this week! (OK, so it hasn’t gone down either – 2 out, 2 in). Standing still at 162!

Here are a few that will be rising to the top soon…

Fiction

 

the heather blazingColm Tóibín has rapidly moved onto my favourite authors list with his most recent novels, and I’m gradually working my way through some of his older books. Santa helped out by kindly providing this one…

The Blurb – The sea is slowly eating into the land, and the hill with the old watchtower has completely disappeared. The nearest house has crumbled and fallen into the sea. It is Ireland in the late twentieth century. Eamon Redmond is a judge in the Irish High Court. Obsessed all his life by the letter and spirit of the law, he is just beginning to discover how painfully unconnected he is from other human beings. With effortless fluency, Colm Tóibín reconstructs the history of Eamon’s relationships – with his father, his first “girl”, his wife, and the children who barely know him. He gives us a family as minutely realized as any of John McGahern’s, and he writes about Eamon’s affection for the landscape of his childhood on the east coast of Ireland with such skill that the land itself becomes a character. The result is a novel that ensnares us with its emotional intensity and dazzles with its crystalline prose.

* * * * *

 

absalom absalomNext up for the GAN Quest! (It’s Absalom! Absalom!, in case you can’t make out the tiny writing on the cover.) It’s got a tough task to follow Beloved – review coming soon…

The Blurb – Quentin Compson and Shreve, his Harvard room-mate, are obsessed by the tragic rise and fall of Thomas Sutpen. As a poor white boy, Sutpen was turned away from a plantation owner’s mansion by a negro butler. From then on, he was determined to force his way into the upper echelons of Southern society. His relentless will ensures his ambitions are soon realised; land, marriage, children. But after the chaos of Civil War, secrets from his own past threaten to destroy everything he has worked for.

* * * * *

Reference

 

1001 booksOh no! What was I thinking?? A moment of weakness and somehow this slipped into my cart! Expect my TBR to rise by roughly 800 in the near future! But I’m thinking it might perhaps contain the secret of immortality…

The Blurb says: Completely revised and updated to include the most up-to-date selections, this is a bold and bright reference book to the novels and the writers that have excited the world’s imagination. This authoritative selection of novels, reviewed by an international team of writers, critics, academics, and journalists, provides a new take on world classics and a reliable guide to what’s hot in contemporary fiction. Featuring more than 700 illustrations and photographs and presenting quotes from individual novels and authors and completely revised for 2012, this is the ideal book for everybody who loves reading.

* * * * *

NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads.

* * * * *

So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?

 

Five of the Best!

FIVE 5-STAR READS
OCTOBER

SMILEYS

Each month this year, I’ll be looking back over my reviews of the past five years and picking out my favourite from each year. Cleo from Cleopatra Loves Books came up with this brilliant idea and kindly agreed to let me borrow it.

So here are my favourite October reads – click on the covers to go to the full reviews…

 

2011

 

american psychoI started this book with some trepidation given that I knew it contains a lot of extremely graphic sex and violence. What I hadn’t expected was to find the book so very funny. The blackest black comedy I have ever read, Ellis lays bare the shallow and self-obsessed world of ’80s yuppie culture and does so superbly. The obsessions with brand clothing, with pop icons such as Genesis and Whitney Houston, with nouvelle and fusion cuisine and most of all with conspicuous spending – all combined to remind me of the awfulness of the laddish greed culture so prevalent at that time.

The violence is indeed graphic and gets progressively more extreme as the book goes on. However, given the theme of excess in all things that runs through the book, I felt it stayed in context. In fact, it eventually became so outrageous that, for me, it passed from being shocking to being, in a strange way, part of the humour of the book. Brilliantly written, extremely perceptive and amazingly funny – still surprised I enjoyed it so much.

 

2012

 

Testament of MaryThis short novella is an amazingly powerful account of a mother’s love and grief for her son. The fact that that son happens to be the Son of God is secondary. Beautifully written and with some wonderful, often poetic, imagery, Tóibín shows us Mary as a woman who lives each day with guilt and pain that she couldn’t stop the events that led her son to the cruel martyrdom of the cross.

Emotional, thought-provoking, at points harrowing, this book packs more punch in its 104 pages than most full-length novels. Its very shortness emphasises Mary’s driven urgency to tell her tale before her chance is gone. Despite the subject matter, it will appeal to lovers of great writing of any faith or none – this story is first and foremost about humanity. This was the book that first introduced me to Colm Tóibín – now firmly in place as one of my favourite authors.

 

2013

 

a time to killThe story begins with the horrific gang-rape and beating of a young black girl by two white men. The two men are quickly arrested and there is no doubt about their guilt. However, Carl Lee Hailey, the father of young Tonya, is not ready to let justice take its course and sets out to take his own revenge. When he is in turn arrested and charged with murder, he asks Jake Brigance to defend him. While there’s a lot of sympathy for Carl Lee, especially amongst the black townsfolk, there is also a sizeable slice of opinion that vigilantism, whatever the provocation, is wrong; and then there’s the minority of white racists who think Carl Lee should be lynched. Soon the town is plunged into fear as the Ku Klux Klan take the opportunity to resurrect the days of burning crosses and worse.

This is an ambitious, sprawling book that looks at racism, ethics, fatherhood, friendship, politics, gender and, of course, corruption and the law. As always with Grisham, the writing is flowing, the plot is absorbing, the characterisation is in-depth and believable and there’s plenty of humour to leaven the grim storyline. Grisham says that often people he meets tell him this is their favourite of all his books – if I ever meet him, I think I’ll be telling him that too.

 

2014

 

a separate peaceOne of the joys of the last few years has been reading my way through some of the American classics, including this one. The book begins with an adult Gene returning to visit the school that he attended as a teenager during the middle years of the Second World War. We very quickly learn that some major event occurred during his time at school and that, in some way, this visit is intended to help him face up to his memories of that time.

This shortish novel is beautifully written. The New England landscape is vividly described, often in war-like metaphors, as we see it change through the seasons from the hot summer days to the deep frozen snows of winter. The life of the school is sketched with the lightest of touches and yet it becomes a place we feel we know and understand – a place in a kind of limbo, suspending its traditional role as educator and feeling rather uneasy in its temporary purpose of training and indoctrinating these young men to play their part in the war. And though the book rarely takes us beyond the school boundaries, we see how the boys are being affected by the news from outside, of battles and glorious victories and horrors in places they can’t even point to on a map. But the most special thing about the book is the truth of the characterisations. A lovely book, intensely emotional and with a true heart.

 

2015

 

the blue guitarA difficult choice, since I also loved Resurrection Science in October, but I’ve decided to stick with the fiction choice.Olly Orme used to be a painter, but his muse has left him. He’s still a thief though. He doesn’t steal for money – it’s the thrill that attracts him. He feels it’s essential that his thefts are noticed or they don’t count as theft. Usually it’s small things he steals – a figurine, a tie-pin. But nine months ago, he stole his friend’s wife, and now that theft is about to be discovered.

This book about the narcissist Olly may not be the deepest or most profound novel I’ve ever read, but the characterisation of Olly is brilliant and, most of all, the prose is fabulous. I could forgive a lot to someone who makes me enjoy every word, whether deeply meaningful or dazzlingly light. And Banville dazzled me while Olly entertained me – I’ll happily settle for that. And will most certainly be backtracking to read some of Banville’s other books.

* * * * * * *

If you haven’t already seen Cleo’s selection for October, why not pop on over? Here’s the link…

 

Five of the Best!

FIVE 5-STAR READS
JANUARY

SMILEYS

Cleo from Cleopatra Loves Books came up with the brilliant idea of looking back over her reviews of the last five years and picking out her favourite books of the month from each year. She kindly agreed to let me borrow her idea (which saved me from stealing it!). I was a bit later in starting reviewing than Cleo, really getting properly underway in about April/May of 2011, so for the first few months I might have to be a bit creative in my 2011 selections.

So here are my favourite January reads…click on the covers to go to the full reviews, though it must be said my early reviews were somewhat basic…

 

2011

 

broomsticks over flaxboroughNo reviews in January 2011, so here’s one from May 2010. I have loved the Flaxborough Chronicles since my teens and Broomsticks over Flaxborough is my favourite – as always, Colin Watson pulls back the respectable net curtains of the town of Flaxborough to let us see the wickedness behind. In this case, we are treated to a coven of middle-aged, middle-class, sex-obsessed Satanists, nicely contrasted with the ‘Lucys’, a superclean team of door-to-door marketers selling soap powder. These books could be cosies were it not for the vein of sly humour that runs through them, giving them a distinct edge and making them wonderfully enjoyable reads.

 

2012

 

dead scaredThe second instalment of Bolton’s Lacey Flint series, and perhaps my favourite. The plot about a spate of students committing suicide couldn’t be much darker, and there are bits that are very unsettling and downright creepy. Having been unsure about Lacey’s character in the first book, Now You See Me, I felt in this one she had become more open and much more likeable, less of a loner and now with a sense of humour and considerably less angst – all to the good. A great entry in a great series.

 

 

2013

 

brooklynThis book, set in the 1950s, takes us from small town Ireland to Brooklyn, in the company of Eilis Lacey, a young girl forced into economic migration through lack of employment and the expectations of her family. This was the second of Tóibín’s books that I read, after the astonishing The Testament of Mary, and confirmed his place as one of my favourite writers. His prose is beautiful, and his small, quiet plots allow his characters to become utterly real. A writer who never fails to move me deeply.

 

 

2014

 

the papers of tony veitchTony Veitch has disappeared and it seems like half the city is looking for him. Laidlaw’s one of the searchers. Tony’s name has come up in connection with Eck Adamson, a drunk and down-and-out, now dead; and it seems Laidlaw’s the only man who cares. McIavanney’s use of language is superb, particularly the way he catches the tones and patterns of Glasgow dialect. Glasgow, as the sum of its people good and bad, is the character that is at the heart of the book and McIlvanney makes us weep and rejoice for it in equal measure. A love letter from a man who sees the violence and darkness of the city, but also sees it as a place of courage and heart and humour – and ultimately integrity.

 

2015

 

lamentationHenry’s last Queen, Catherine Parr, has written a book describing her spiritual journey to believing that salvation can be found only through study of the Bible and the love of Christ, rather than through the traditional rites of the Church. Not quite heretical, but close enough to be used against her by the traditionalists. So when the book is stolen, Catherine calls on the loyalty of her old acquaintance, Matthew Shardlake, to find it and save her from becoming another of Henry’s victims. The most recent entry in the Shardlake series is also the best – the fiction is woven seamlessly into the fact, and the picture that Sansom paints of the last days of Henry VIII’s reign is both authentic and terrifying.

 

If you haven’t already seen Cleo’s selection for January, why not pop on over? Here’s the link…

FictionFan Awards 2014 – Literary Fiction

Please rise…

 

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2014 in the Literary Fiction Category.

If you’ve been around the last couple of weeks, you might want to skip this bit and go straight to the awards. But for the benefit of new readers, a quick reminder of the rules…

THE CRITERIA

All nominees must be books I’ve read and reviewed between November 2013 and October 2014 regardless of publication date, but excluding re-reads. The books must have received a 5-star rating.

THE CATEGORIES

There will be Honourable Mentions and a Winner in each of the following categories

Factual – click to see awards

Genre Fiction – click to see awards

Literary Fiction

Crime Fiction/Thrillers

 

…and…

Book of the Year 2014

THE PRIZES

For the winners!

I guarantee to read the authors’ next book even if I have to buy it myself!

For the runners-up!

Nothing!

THE JUDGES

Me!

* * * * * * * * *

So, without further ado, here are this year’s runners-up and winner in

 

LITERARY FICTION

 

Regrettably, this has been the worst year I can remember for new literary fiction. In the entire year, only a handful of books achieved five-star status, and a couple of them already appeared in the FictionFan Shadow Booker Awards 2013. Of course, there might have been hundreds of brilliant books published that haven’t come my way, but I don’t get the impression from around the blogosphere that there are absolute must-reads out there that I’ve missed. Fortunately this dearth has been more than compensated for by the books I’ve read as part of the Great American Novel Quest, the vast majority of which have been superb – presumably that’s why they’re classics. As you will see, this year’s nominees reflect that…

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

 

the roadThe Road by Cormac McCarthy

I’m a little surprised to be including this bleak dystopian novel as a runner-up. It is the tale of a man and a boy travelling through a landscape devastated by some unspecified disaster – probably a nuclear winter. At the time I was somewhat ambivalent about it, finding the writing style a little irritating, and feeling that the book thought it was more profound than it actually was. However I also found it “thought-provoking and full of imagery that will stay with me for a long time – images both of horror and the ugliness of mankind, and of goodness, truth and a stark kind of beauty.” And indeed, it has stayed with me ever since I read it, and I find the images have become part of my literary landscape. It’s a book I find myself thinking about and referring to time and again, with the result that my opinion of it has continued to grow, to the extent that I would now count it as a great novel.

Click to see the full review

the road2

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Arzee the Dwarf by Chandrahas Choudhury

arzee the dwarfDespite his lack of inches, Arzee is on the verge of achieving the two things he most wants out of life – to become the head projectionist of the Noor Cinema and to find a wife. But, as the poet tells us, the best laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley. And Arzee’s dream is about to be shattered when the owner of the run-down cinema decides to close it. This is the story of two weeks in Arzee’s life as he faces a future that has suddenly become dark and uncertain.

I loved Choudhury’s prose in this deliciously bittersweet comedy – there’s some beautifully phrased imagery, while the dialogue between Arzee and the various other characters provides much of the humour. Bombay is vibrantly portrayed – the Bombay of ordinary people leading ordinary lives. Though there is depth and even some darkness in the story, the overall tone is light with almost the feeling of a fairytale to it. I found I became more and more enchanted with the book as I read and by the end was fully invested in Arzee’s hopes and dreams. This was truly an unexpected delight of a book and it still, ten months on, makes me smile each time I think of it.

Click to see the full review

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the sun also risesThe Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemigway

Another entry that surprises me, and for the same reasons as The Road – I have found this one has stayed in my mind and my appreciation of it has continued to grow. By all rights, I should have hated it – a macho tale of men being men, drunken quarrels, bullfighting and the ‘lost generation’ of feckless wasters. But…some of the descriptions are excellent – the dusty journey to Pamplona, the passengers met by chance en route all merge to become a strikingly vivid picture of a particular place and time. As they all sit around drinking in Pamplona, I felt I could see the various cafés and bars clearly, almost smell them. The interactions between the ex-pats and the natives are brilliantly portrayed, particularly the growing disapproval from the real aficionados when Brett’s behaviour begins to threaten the traditions of the bullfight. And as for the arena itself, I found I was unexpectedly fascinated by his depiction of the rituals around the running of the bulls and the bullfighting. In the end I found that the picture that eventually emerges of a damaged man metaphorically rising from the ashes through a kind of examination of maleness is really quite compelling after all. And, with the benefit of a little more distance, the book has settled into a permanent place as an unforgettable read, fully justifying its inclusion as one of the best books I’ve read this year…or perhaps ever.

Click to see the full review

Painting credited to 'Matador Painter'
Painting credited to ‘Matador Painter’

* * * * * * * * *

Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín

nora websterThe last literary fiction novel I read in the period covered by the awards and so nearly the winner. When we meet Nora, it’s some weeks since her husband Maurice died of cancer, and the story takes us through the next three years or so of her life. Like so much of Tóibín’s writing, this is a small, quiet story, told simply, without big philosophical statements or poetic flourishes. But its simplicity enables Tóibín to create complete and utterly truthful characters – people we feel we have known, may even have been. The book rests almost entirely on characterisation – the plot is minimal. Set in time and place between two of Tóibín’s earlier books, Brooklyn and The Blackwater Lightship, it seems to me that the three can be seen as a loose trilogy, giving a complete and wholly credible picture of the changes in women’s lives in these small communities throughout the second half of the last century. And, of the three books, this is the one I enjoyed most. Nora, while not always totally likeable, is beautifully drawn and her emotions ring true at every step of the way. A deeply moving book, as Tóibín’s always are – not because of any cheap emotional tricks, but because of the clarity and truthfulness of his characterisation. The only book published this year to make the shortlist….

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2014

for

BEST LITERARY FICTION

 

revolutionary road

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

Frank and April Wheeler have the perfect 1950s lifestyle – the nice house in suburbia, the two children; he with the daily commute to a good job in the city; she, a home-maker, beautiful and decorative – the middle-class, mid-20th century American Dream made real. But strip away the superficial and we find two people who have failed to be the people they expected to be, who are living every day with the disappointment of what they and each other have become. There is a desperation at the heart of this book – the desperation of rats caught in a laboratory maze.

When I reviewed it, I described this book as a masterpiece, and I hold to that opinion. Yates captures the language of the time so well that I could hear the dialogue being spoken in my head. These words could have been spoken at no other time and in no other place. And yet for all the talking in the book, there’s no sense of communication – each character is ultimately alone, desperately trying to hide behind the image they project. There are moments of quiet beauty in the writing, and an integrity in the characterisation that leads the reader to empathise even when we see them stripped down to their worst flaws and insecurities. And perhaps we empathise most because he makes us fear that we recognise ourselves in there somewhere.

A book that encapsulates a certain time and place, at a moment when the traditional American Dream was about to be shattered and made anew, when roles were changing in the family and in the workplace, when both men and women were trying to figure out how to forge new ways of living in a world where increasing technological advances were rendering the old ways obsolete – this comes close to rivalling The Great Gatsby as my favourite American novel of all time.

A worthy winner indeed – however since, due to being dead, Mr Yates is unlikely to be producing any new novels in the near future, the prize will be that I will read something from his back catalogue – A Special Providence, I think.

Click to see the full review and other illustrations

kate winslet in RR

* * * * * * * * *

Two weeks today: Crime Fiction/Thrillers Award

Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín

nora webster‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When we meet Nora, it’s some weeks since her husband Maurice died of cancer, and the story takes us through the next three years or so of her life. The book is set in Tóibín’s own birth town of Enniscorthy in County Wexford just at the turn of the decade to the 1970s. This means it’s positioned between two of Tóibín’s earlier works: Brooklyn, about a young Irish girl sent abroad from the same town as an economic migrant in the 1950s, and The Blackwater Lightship, about three generations of women forced together by grief and trying to overcome old resentments. Although these books are entirely separate from this one in terms of story and characters, Tóibín makes reference to them both early on, and it would not be unreasonable, I feel, to see the three as a loose trilogy, building together to show us the changes in this small old-fashioned society over the decades, especially as they affected women. Brooklyn was set at a time when girls were still expected to conform to traditions upheld by their families and church in terms of their lives and marriages, while in The Blackwater Lightship, Helen has broken almost completely from this society and its traditions, though we see how they can still exert an emotional hold over her. Here, through Nora Webster, we see the midway point – the cusp of feminism if you like, arriving late in this small backwater, when women were beginning to see the possibilities of a life not pre-defined for them by parents or husbands.

Enniscorthy and Blackstairs Mountains
Enniscorthy and Blackstairs Mountains

Like so much of Tóibín’s writing, this is a small, quiet story, told simply, without big philosophical statements or poetic flourishes. But its simplicity enables Tóibín to create complete and utterly truthful characters – people we feel we have known, may even have been. The book rests almost entirely on characterisation – the plot is minimal. Nora is in her forties with two daughters almost grown and living away at school and college, and two younger sons, both deeply affected by the death of their father and by Nora’s withdrawal into grief. We see that the marriage was a traditional one, with Maurice as the breadwinner and the one who made the big decisions, while Nora fulfilled the role of housewife and mother and had no expectations of a wider life. Left to cope on her own after Maurice’s death, at first she is determined to maintain a continuity with the past and to hold her grief inside herself, hoping that a sense of normality will shield her sons from the worst feelings of loss. But as time passes, and as she is thrust back into the world through the economic need to work, Nora begins to feel the influence of the changes that are taking place in society.

Looking into the fire, Nora tried to think back, wondering if May Lacey had ever been in this house before. She thought not. She had known her all her life, like so many in the town, to greet and exchange pleasantries with, or to stop and talk to if there was news. She knew the story of her life down to her maiden name and the plot in the graveyard where she would be buried.

My reaction to Tóibín’s writing of these women of the generation of Nora, and Eilis from Brooklyn, is a very personal one, mainly because his characters remind me so much of my own mother. The cultures of Ireland and the West of Scotland are so intertwined that I find the society he portrays wholly recognisable; and these strong post-war women who bore their sorrows within themselves, often in silence, are written with such integrity and understanding. As Nora gradually emerges from her first grief and begins, in a small way, to embrace life again, Tóibín subtly shows the guilt she feels, as if her enjoyment is a betrayal of her husband. And when, at this time of change, she finds she is drawn to things that Maurice would never have understood, such as developing a love for classical music and a desire to learn to sing, we see her struggle to accept her own right to make decisions about her life – a right she may never have considered had Maurice lived. Even making a decision to buy something for herself is so carefully weighed against the guilt that she may be being selfish, that her own wants shouldn’t matter.

Colm Tóibín
Colm Tóibín

Though the story is very focussed on Nora, through her Tóibín shows the impact of the wider events of the time. Maurice was the political one in the family, but now, with the Troubles in Northern Ireland worsening every day, Nora finds herself forming her own opinions and no longer being willing to nod quietly in acceptance of the views of the men in her family. Through her daughters, Tóibín shows how much freer the next generation of women felt, and how much more involved they would be in the world outside the home, both in careers and politics. For me the three books – from Eilis in Brooklyn, through Nora and her daughters, and on to Helen in The Blackwater Lightship – give a complete and wholly credible picture of the changes in women’s lives in these small communities throughout the second half of the last century. And of the three books, this is the one I enjoyed most. Nora, while not always totally likeable, is beautifully drawn and her emotions ring true at every step of the way. A deeply moving book, as Tóibín’s always are – not because of any cheap emotional tricks, but because of the clarity and truthfulness of his characterisation. This one gets my highest recommendation.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Penguin Books UK. Er…and Scribner. (What can I say? I requested it from both to be on the safe side and they both approved it. Oops!)

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 39…

The People’s Choice 4…The Result!

 

Excitingly, the voting has once again resulted in a tie for first place! The Professor and the Madman sounds like a great read. But since I’m up to my eyes in factual books at the moment and since the spooky season will soon be upon us, I’m giving the casting vote to…

the haunting of hill house

The BlurbFirst published in 1959, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House has been hailed as a perfect work of unnerving terror. It is the story of four seekers who arrive at a notoriously unfriendly pile called Hill House: Dr. Montague, an occult scholar looking for solid evidence of a “haunting”; Theodora, his lighthearted assistant; Eleanor, a friendless, fragile young woman well acquainted with poltergeists; and Luke, the future heir of Hill House. At first, their stay seems destined to be merely a spooky encounter with inexplicable phenomena. But Hill House is gathering its powers—and soon it will choose one of them to make its own.

 *******

Thanks to all who voted, and to Cathy at 746 Books for the review that brought this book to my attention.

Now all I have to do is find time to read it…

*******

And here’s a few more that should be rising to the top of the pile soon…

Factual

 

joan of arc

Courtesy of NetGalley, heading away from British and American history for a bit…

The BlurbWe all know the story of Joan of Arc. A peasant girl who hears voices from God. A warrior leading an army to victory, in an age that believes women cannot fight. The Maid of Orleans, and the saviour of France. Burned at the stake as a heretic at the age of just nineteen. Five hundred years later, a saint. Her case was heard in court twice over. One trial, in 1431, condemned her; the other, twenty-five years after her death, cleared her name. In the transcripts, we hear first-hand testimony from Joan, her family and her friends: a rare survival from the medieval world. What could be more revealing? But all is not as simple as it seems, because this is a life told backwards, in hindsight – a story already shaped by the knowledge of what Joan would become.

In Joan of Arc: A History, Helen Castor tells this gripping story afresh: forwards, not backwards, setting this extraordinary girl within her extraordinary world where no one – not Joan herself, nor the people around her, princes, bishops, soldiers or peasants – knew what would happen next.

 

* * * * *

Crime

 

the beat goes onPublication today, it will be interesting to see how the Grand Old Man of Tartan Noir fares in short story format…

The BlurbOver the years, Ian Rankin has amassed an incredible portfolio of short stories. Published in crime magazines, composed for events, broadcast on radio, they all share the best qualities of his phenomenally popular Rebus novels.

Brought together for the first time, and including brand new material, this is the ultimate Rebus short-story collection and a must-have book for crime lovers and for Ian’s millions of fans alike.

No Rankin aficionado can go without it.

 

* * * * *

Fiction

 

nora webster

From NetGalley again, towards the end of the dreariest year I can remember for new literary fiction, here’s hoping Colm Tóibín can lift the standard…

The BlurbSet in Wexford, Ireland, Colm Tóibín’s superb seventh novel introduces the formidable, memorable and deeply moving Nora Webster. Widowed at forty, with four children and not enough money, Nora has lost the love of her life, Maurice, the man who rescued her from the stifling world to which she was born. And now she fears she may be drawn back into it. Wounded, strong-willed, clinging to secrecy in a tiny community where everyone knows your business, Nora is drowning in her own sorrow and blind to the suffering of her young sons, who have lost their father. Yet she has moments of stunning empathy and kindness, and when she begins to sing again, after decades, she finds solace, engagement, a haven—herself.

 

* * * * *

NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads.

* * * * *

So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?

The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín read by Meryl Streep

Flesh and blood and bone…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

testament streepWhen it comes to dramatic interpretations of books, every reader is his/her own director. We know how the book sounded in our head, how the characters looked, behaved, spoke. How often do we feel a little disappointed in the ‘film of the book’ – not because it is in any way unfaithful to the story, but simply because it’s not quite as we envisaged it? The same problem of reader-as-director applies to audiobooks. Sometimes the narrator’s voice fits perfectly with the voice in our head – Derek Jacobi as Watson narrating Holmes, for instance, Joan Hickson reading Agatha Christie, or Jonathan Cecil as the perfect narrator of Jeeves and Wooster…for this reader/director anyway.

The Testament of Mary is the ideal book for audio, since it is the first-person narration of Mary’s story, and was originally written as a performance piece before being turned into a book. I have reviewed the book already (click to see the review) and found it a harrowing novel, full of guilt and fear. I was thrilled to hear that Meryl Streep had recorded it, given my admiration of her talent as an actor and my love of her voice. And I’d like to say straight off that hers is a wonderful performance, emotional, well-paced and with Mary’s character fully realised. But…but…the emotions that Streep has given us are primarily those of sorrow, loss and regret and while that is a perfectly valid reading of the book, it doesn’t quite chime with my own directorial interpretation. The anger and bitterness, the fear and guilt were all a little muted – subsumed by the sorrow. This is a book that made me cry for Mary, indeed, but it also made my blood boil, horrified me and made me feel Mary’s fear.

meryl streep

Up to the point of the Lazarus story, Streep had me totally with her. This was perhaps the part of the book that affected me most. The vision that Tóibín gives us of the strangeness and pain of Lazarus following his return to life churned my emotions, and Streep caught this aspect perfectly. But at the description of the crucifixion itself, I felt that the horror didn’t come through – this is a mother watching her son having nails driven through his hands and suffering a cruel and lingering death. Mary explains why she did nothing, but that doesn’t mean that she remained dispassionate, and I’m afraid Streep’s reading seemed strangely passionless for the most part, almost resigned.

Colm Tóibín
Colm Tóibín

Since the story is being told by an old Mary long after the event, I could see the validity of Streep’s reading – this is a story Mary has gone over in her head many times and the horror will no longer be fresh for her. But it is for us – and I felt there should have been more of an emotional peak. The narration didn’t move me to anything like the extent of my own internal reading of the book – I didn’t find I was sharing Mary’s emotions, I didn’t feel the pain and the guilt to the same degree, and the fear just didn’t seem to be there.

Overall, I may have felt quite differently about this reading had I never read the book, and I would certainly recommend it highly to anyone who prefers audio to print. It is one interpretation, certainly at least as valid as my own, and Streep’s performance is strong and beautifully controlled. But it didn’t match the expectations of my interior director and therefore didn’t have quite the impact I was anticipating. With luck, this may become the kind of book that many actors will want to tackle and we may get a range of audio interpretations in time. If so, though I personally will be hoping for a more overtly emotional performance, Streep has set a very high standard and I’m sure this version will remain one of the best.

Amazon UK Link                                     Audible UK Link
Amazon US link                                      Audible US Link

The Blackwater Lightship by Colm Tóibín

Mothers and daughters…

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

the blackwater lightshipHelen has had a strained relationship with her mother Lily and grandmother Dora for years. But now Helen’s brother Declan is dying of AIDS, and the three women are forced to come together for his sake. At Declan’s request, they all go together to spend some time at Dora’s home, resurrecting unhappy memories of the time Helen and Declan lived there as children, while Lily was in Dublin looking after their dying father.

Tóibín’s writing throughout is spare and beautifully controlled, always giving the impression of simplicity and integrity. He paints a very convincing picture of the small village of Blackwater, old-fashioned and conservative, also slowly dying as erosion from the sea gradually destroys the houses built on the coast. There’s no real plot; this is a study of the three generations of women, forced together physically by a shared grief but emotionally separate. And there’s a secondary strand as Declan’s illness allows Tóibín to look at attitudes towards homosexuality in Ireland in the ‘90s, through the reactions of the three generations of his family to his two friends who have come to stay with him. The book is told in the third person from Helen’s viewpoint and what we get to know about the other characters comes through that filter, and through the many conversations that take place as the long days and wakeful nights pass. As old resentments come to the surface, Tóibín takes no sides and apportions no blame, nor does he offer any easy resolutions.

“Imaginings and resonances and pain and small longings and prejudices. They meant nothing against the resolute hardness of the sea…It might have been better, she felt, if there had never been people, if this turning of the world, and the glistening sea, and the morning breeze happened without witnesses, without anyone feeling, or remembering, or dying, or trying to love.”

I’ve been reading Tóibín backwards in time, my first introduction to him having been the gut-wrenching and amazingly powerful The Testament of Mary (which I’m delighted to see on the Booker longlist). In this book, I can clearly see the potential that he fulfilled in the later one, but I found this book curiously cold. Although we learn a little about Declan’s friends, Declan himself remains underdeveloped – he’s really little more than a catalyst to bring the women together. The contrast of the emotional openness and competence of Declan’s friends with the frosty reserve and inadequacy of the women was, I felt, over-stated and a little too simplistic to be truly convincing.

Colm Tóibín
Colm Tóibín

The characterisation of the women is much deeper and their conversations and interactions ring entirely true. However, as we slowly learn what is at the root of the tensions amongst them, the reasons don’t seem to sufficiently explain Helen’s bitterness, and as a result she comes over as a rather selfish and unforgiving person, still focussed on her own childhood resentments and having learned very little from her own experiences of love and motherhood. And this, I think, is the reason that the book didn’t have quite the same emotional impact in the end as either Testament of Mary or to a lesser degree Brooklyn.

Overall, though, the themes of grief and family, the sense of place and time and the intimacy of the characterisation are all hallmarks of Tóibín’s work which, combined with the quality of the writing, make this an insightful and compelling read; and, despite my reservations around the emotional depth of the book, one that I would highly recommend.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín

Absorbing and beautifully written…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

brooklynThis book, set in the 1950s, takes us from small town Ireland to Brooklyn in the company of Eilis Lacey, a young girl forced into economic migration through lack of employment and the expectations of her family. Though told in the third person, we see through Eilis’ eyes as we get to know about her life in Ireland with the mother and sister she loves, with friends and roots in a community she has known all her life; then we follow her as she is transplanted to Brooklyn, where she has the support of the Irish community, still strongly under the sway of the Roman Catholic church, but where she is so far away from her family, friendless and emotionally alone.

‘The letters told Eilis little; there was hardly anything personal in them and nothing that sounded like anyone’s own voice. Nonetheless, as she read them over and over, she forgot for a moment where she was and she could picture her mother in the kitchen taking her Basildon Bond notepad and her envelopes and setting out to write a proper letter with nothing crossed out.’

Tóibín’s prose is wonderful and his characterisation of Eilis is very convincing – a passive heroine from a time and a society when decisions were still made by parents and community, before the rebelliousness and individualism of the sixties had begun. Trying to please everyone, learning to hide her loneliness and homesickness, Eilis’ life is a small one – this is not a book full of dramatic plot twists and events; rather, it is a study of a gradual growing up as Eilis deals with the various changes that happen in her life and slowly starts to form her own opinions and make her own decisions.

brooklyn 2

The descriptions of the voyage to America, Eilis’ feelings of isolation and longing for her family, her gradual settling and her falling in love all ring very true. We see her at first lost amongst but then beginning to understand the various ethnicities that are gathered in Brooklyn, a sharp contrast to the monoculture of home. In particular, the passages relating to a bereavement and grief are beautifully written and enormously moving.

‘Eilis now wondered if there was any way she could return to the shop floor and stop this from having happened, or stop him from having told her. In the silence she almost asked Father Flood to go and not come into the store again like this, but she realized instantly how foolish that was. He was here. She had heard what he said. She could not put back time.’

As the book neared the end I found Eilis’ thoughts and actions became a little less convincing and they felt a little contrived towards paving the way for a neat conclusion. But this is a small criticism of a book that overall I found to be completely absorbing, beautifully written and a pleasure to read.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín

‘Bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh…’

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Testament of MaryThis short novella is an amazingly powerful account of a mother’s love and grief for her son. The fact that that son happens to be, perhaps, the Son of God is secondary. Beautifully written and with some wonderful, often poetic, imagery, Tóibín shows us Mary as a woman who lives each day with guilt and pain that she couldn’t stop the events that led her son to the cruel martyrdom of the cross.

As Jesus’ followers encourage her to embellish her story to tie in with the legend they are beginning to create, Mary feels that she must tell, even if only once, the true story of her involvement in these momentous events. We see her cynicism and doubt about the miracles attributed to her son; her dislike, contempt even, for those followers who seem intent on feeding his ego, who seem to be provoking his martyrdom to serve their own ends. And most of all we come to understand and almost to share her guilt and fear.

Emotional, thought-provoking, at points harrowing, this book packs more punch in its 104 pages than most full-length novels. Its very shortness emphasises Mary’s driven urgency to tell her tale before her chance is gone. Despite the subject matter, it will appeal to lovers of great writing of any faith or none – this story is first and foremost about humanity.  Highly recommended.

Colm Tóibín
Colm Tóibín

Update to original review –  may contain mild spoilers

Since I first posted this review on Amazon US in October 2012, I have become very aware from other reviews that many Christians have found this book offensive, though being honest it seems often to be people who haven’t read it who find it so.  From my perspective, there is no denial of Christ being the Son of God in the book. Indeed, Tóibín tells the tale in such a way that there is no doubt that Christ performed miracles, though Mary may question their worth. The story of Lazarus is one of the most haunting parts of the book.

This is the story of an old and lonely woman, who has lost her son in the most horrific way, living with grief and pain and, not unnaturally, doubt as to whether it was worth it. The guilt Mary feels is the creation of her own mind – at no point did I feel that Tóibín was implying that her guilt was well-founded. How many mothers feel undeserved guilt when their children suffer? Why would Mary be different?

As I said in the original review, this is a very human story that moved me deeply and remains fresh and sharp in my mind six months later. I can only encourage people to read it with an open mind. If it is read as fiction, not fact, then it is a very beautiful piece of writing and a master-class in story-telling.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link