TBR Thursday 222… and Quarterly Round-Up

TBR Quarterly Report

I usually include a summary of how I’m progressing (or not) towards the targets I set myself for the year, but since I’ll be looking at my New Year’s Resolutions old and new tomorrow, I’ll leave that for then. So just a round-up of the books I’ve read and reviewed for my various ongoing challenges this time. I’ve read loads but due to my recent break, I’m way behind with reviews…

(Reminds me of my postman throwing books at me…)

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The Around the World in 80 Books Challenge

Last check-in was in September, and this quarter I’ve been to three destinations…

On the Main Journey (made by the characters in Around the World in 80 Days) I took my time machine back to Omaha to visit the World Fair of 1898 in Timothy Schaffert’s surprisingly enjoyable The Swan Gondola. Then Joseph Conrad and Lord Jim took me on a revealing trip around various parts of the British Empire, including a harrowing voyage across another compulsory destination, the Arabian Sea.

I finished my quarter’s travels with a detour to visit the Igbo clan in colonial-era Nigeria in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.

To see the full challenge including the Main Journey and all detours, click here.

72 down, 8 to go!

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The Classics Club

I’ve read an astonishing eight from my Classics Club list this quarter and had another still to review from the previous quarter. So far I’ve only reviewed five of these nine though, so have four still to review…

52. Sons and Lovers by DH Lawrence – The story of young Paul Morel, the son of a Nottingham miner and alter-ego of the author, as he grows through childhood into manhood, and of the three women who vie for his love. This stood up very well to re-reading after many years, to my delight since it was one of the formative novels of my own adolescence. 5 stars

53. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey – New patient Randle P McMurphy arrives on the mental ward and is soon challenging Nurse Ratched for supremacy, geeing the Acutes up to rebel against the institution’s rules. Another re-read, of a book I found disappointing when I first read it many years ago too close to watching the movie, but this time around thought was brilliant. 5 stars.

54. Cloud Howe by Lewis Grassic Gibbon – This second part of A Scots Quair trilogy follows the further life of Chris Guthrie, now married to a minister and having moved from her farm to the small town of Segget. Unfortunately I didn’t think it was anywhere near to Sunset Song in terms of the writing, structure or in what it has to say about society, though it tries. Just 3 stars.

55. Wild Harbour by Ian Macpherson – Billed as sci-fi, this is really more of an alternative history set in the then near future, in a Britain at war. The main protagonist doesn’t believe in killing so takes to the hills of Scotland with his wife, to live in a cave and wait for the war to be over. A bleak survivalist adventure that becomes dystopian in the end, that I found compelling despite my distaste for the premise. 4 stars.

56. East of Eden by John Steinbeck – The story of how two generations of an extended family live their lives in misery and strife, and then die, usually horribly. My last Steinbeck – I’ve had far too much of his utterly depressing view of humanity. A generous 2 stars.

I’m nearly back on track with this challenge and have several more lined up for the next quarter, including the winner of the latest Classics Club Spin, Grey Granite, the third book in A Scots Quair.

56 down, 34 to go!

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Murder Mystery Mayhem

I haven’t read any for this challenge this quarter since I’d already met my target for the year. However I still had three reviews pending from the quarter before. To see the full challenge, click here.

32.  Family Matters by Anthony Rolls – Robert and Bertha Kewdingham live in a state of constant quarrelling, tired of each other, dissatisfied with their lives but unable to change. It’s a pity that Bertha is attractive to other men, and that Robert keeps a pharmacy-size stock of poisons readily to hand to treat his rampaging hypochondria. Things are bound to get nasty… Excellent characterisation and a lot of fun. 4½ stars.

33.  Payment Deferred by CS Forester – Not really a mystery, this one. The murder happens right at the beginning, and the book is actually about the impact it has on the murderer’s psychology. We watch as guilt and fear eat away at him, destroying his already weak character. It’s very well written and psychologically convincing but, oh my, it’s depressing! Just 3 stars.

34.  The Curious Mr Tarrant by C. Daly King – A collection of eight stories. Tarrant is an amateur detective, but his interest is purely in the bizarre. He investigates for the intellectual thrill, and has no particular interest in achieving justice. I gave a couple of the early stories 5 stars and another 4. But the rest ranged from mediocre to dire, getting progressively worse as they went along. A disappointing 2 stars overall.

34 down, 68 to go!

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5 x 5 Challenge

Just one reviewed for this challenge this quarter. Struggling badly to motivate myself to continue with this since several of the books have been disappointing. But I’ll keep going for a little longer, although I’m dropping one of my five authors…

8.  East of Eden by John Steinbeck. As I said above in the Classics Club section, I’m done with Steinbeck now. There’s not enough chocolate in the world to compensate for the miasma of misery that hovers around him. A generous and final 2 stars.

8 down, 3 Steinbecks removed from list, 14 to go!

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A mixed quarter’s reading as far as challenge books have gone, but still with some gems among them! Thank you for joining me on my reading adventures and…

Here’s to more great reading next quarter! 😀

East of Eden by John Steinbeck

What a glorious feeling…

😐 😐

The story of how two generations of an extended family live their lives in misery and strife, and then die, usually horribly.

By the time Cyrus was released from the hospital and the army, his gonorrhoea was dried up. When he got home to Connecticut there remained only enough of it for his wife.

I give up. In The Grapes of Wrath at least there was some glorious writing amid the misery, but here the writing ranges from mediocre to poor, with some of the most unrealistic dialogue I’ve ever read. The Chinaman who manages to convey all the worst stereotyping while supposedly showing how silly the stereotyping is. The ranchers who sit around discussing the meaning of the Bible, including varying translations of the original Hebrew. The spell-it-out-in-case-you-miss-it religious symbolism laid on with a trowel. The women who are all victims or whores or both. The casual racism. And the misery. The misery. Oh, woe is me, the misery!

First there were Indians, an inferior breed without energy, inventiveness, or culture, a people that lived on grubs and grasshoppers and shellfish, too lazy to hunt or fish. They ate what they could pick up and planted nothing. They pounded bitter acorns for flour. Even their warfare was a weary pantomime.

Looking at my notes for my first reading session of about fifty pages, I see that one man lost his leg in war, one wife died of suicide after contracting gonorrhoea from her adulterous husband, wife #2 is dying of consumption, one brother beat another to a pulp, and a father has gone off after his son with a shotgun. Admittedly no one could say nothing ever happens, but it’s hardly a barrel of laughs. At this point I was wondering if the rise in use of anti-depressants could be dated to the time when Steinbeck was included on the curricula of schools and colleges.

“Lee,” he said at last, “I mean no disrespect, but I’ve never been able to figure why you people still talk pidgin when an illiterate baboon from the black bogs of Ireland, with a head full of Gaelic and a tongue like a potato, learns to talk a poor grade of English in ten years.”
Lee grinned. “Me talkee Chinese talk,” he said.

Then there’s the evil woman – you know, the one who destroys good men by tempting them with her nasty womanly sex stuff. Not that I’d call Steinbeck a misogynist, exactly – he really hates all of humanity. But his hatred of men is pretty much all to do with violence and greed while with his women it’s all to do with sex and with their little habit of causing the downfall of men. Not that the women enjoy any of it – by my reckoning at least three of them killed themselves, a couple contracted sexually transmitted diseases, several were beaten up by various men and the solitary “happy” one had a stream of children and spent her entire life in drudgery, cooking and cleaning and then watching her children go off and make a miserable mess of their lives.

The boys exchanged uneasy glances. It was their first experience with the inexorable logic of women, which is overwhelming even, or perhaps especially, when it is wrong. This was new to them, exciting and frightening.

Book 56 of 90

I do feel sorry for Steinbeck – I assume he must have had a rotten life. But I’ve decided to stop allowing him to strangle my hard won joie de vivre while emptying my half-full glass. I finished this one, and sadly feel that it wasn’t worth the effort – and boy, was it an effort! Into each life some rain must fall, for sure, but Steinbeck is a deluge. I’m putting up my umbrella, and writing Steinbeck off my TBR permanently. And I feel happier already…

There is great safety for a shy man with a whore. Having been paid for, and in advance, she has become a commodity, and a shy man can be gay with her and even brutal to her. Also, there is none of the horror of the possible turndown which shrivels the guts of timid men.

Poor Steinbeck.

Amazon UK Link
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TBR Thursday 214… and Quarterly Round-Up

TBR Quarterly Report

At the New Year, as I do every year, I set myself some targets for my various reading challenges and for the reduction of my ever-expanding TBR. It’s usually by this stage of the year that it becomes blindingly obvious that, unless cloning technology is invented tomorrow, I stand zero chance of meeting any of my targets, and I have a sinking feeling this year will be no different!

So here we are – the third check-in of the year…

Oh, dear! It’s not looking hopeful! The MMM challenge is done and dusted for this year, and I’m doing fine at keeping the new releases under control, but that was supposed to give me time to keep up with all the rest! I’ve picked up a tiny bit on the other challenges, but not nearly enough. I don’t understand it – I feel as if I’ve read nothing but challenge books for months… well, apart from vintage crime, vintage horror and vintage sci-fi. Hmm! I think I’m beginning to see the problem… oh well, three months to go and miracles do happen. Don’t they?

The TBR is going better. Although I’m unlikely to meet the target on books I own, especially the older ones, the overall combined TBR/wishlist figure is still on track. That calls for a celebration!

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The Around the World in 80 Books Challenge

Last check-in was in June, and this quarter I’ve visited four continents (maybe five – my geography is terrible) and sailed through every ocean!

On the Main Journey (made by the characters in Around the World in 80 Days) my exciting round the world voyage in Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas took me through the Mediterranean, while my visit to fictional Mayapore in North Central India in Paul Scott’s wonderful The Jewel in the Crown will tick the box for the equally fictional Kholby in Uttar Pradesh. Confused? Me too!

I had several detours this quarter, some good, some not so much. I went to Papua New Guinea in Lloyd Jones’ Mister Pip, only to find myself in the midst of a bloody civil war, which I could have coped with if only the book hadn’t been quite so bad. I slipped back in time to Zululand in H. Rider Haggard’s wonderful Nada the Lily, for a stirring adventure based on African history and folklore. Then I was taken behind the Berlin Wall to East Germany, in John le Carré’s excellent and influential The Spy Who Came In from the Cold. My final trip was with John Steinbeck in The Pearl – a tragic (and profoundly depressing) story of the pointlessness of life (though I think it’s supposed to be about the evils of capitalism), set in Mexico.

To see the full challenge including the Main Journey and all detours, click here.

69 down, 11 to go!

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The Classics Club

I’ve reviewed seven books from my Classics Club list this quarter and have one other pending…

45. Middlemarch by George Eliot – Set just before the Reform Act of 1832, Eliot uses the better off residents of the provincial town of Middlemarch to muse on the state of society at a point of change. A book that engaged my intellect more than my emotions and, in the end, failed to make me care about the outcomes for the people with whom I’d spent so much time. 3½ stars.

46. In the Heat of the Night by John Ball – Fundamentally a crime novel with a very good plot and some excellent detection elements, but it’s far more than that – it paints an entirely believable picture of being a black man in a town that’s run by the whites for the whites at a time when segregation and racism were still entirely acceptable. 5 stars.

47. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas by Jules Verne – Scientist Aronnax and his companions find themselves unwilling guests aboard the submarine Nautilus as Captain Nemo takes them on a fabulous journey beneath the seas and oceans of the world. The descriptions of the wonders of the deeps, the glimpses of other civilisations, the mystery surrounding Captain Nemo and the thrilling adventure aspects all more than made up for the excessive fish-detail. 5 stars

48. Nada the Lily by H. Rider Haggard – This is the tale of Umslopogaas, unacknowledged son of Chaka, a great Zulu king, and the beautiful Nada the Lily whom he loves. Excellently written in the voice of Umslopogaas’ adoptive father Mopo, Haggard has managed to create an entirely believable picture without projecting white people or their attitudes or values onto a story about Africa. 5 stars.

49. The Spy Who Came In from the Cold by John le Carré – British spymaster Alec Leamas is asked to stay “out in the cold” for one last operation – to take part in an elaborate sting to infiltrate the East German set-up and bring down his opposite number. Thought-provoking, intelligent, engrossing and hugely influential on the genre. 4½ stars.

50. On the Beach by Nevil Shute – A devastating nuclear war has been fought across the world, wiping out almost all life. We follow a group of characters in the city and suburbs of Melbourne as they figure out how to spend their last few months of life. Well written and with excellent characterisation and as relevant today as it was when written. 5 stars.

51. Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby, Jr. – A bunch of sad losers hang around getting drunk, drugged and beating each other up, with added sexual depravity. Ugh! The style is as vile as the content, making this the best argument for book-banning I’ve read. 1 star.

How is it that I’m still behind with this challenge?? Oh well, I have several more lined up over the next couple of months…

51 down, 39 to go!

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Murder Mystery Mayhem

I’ve read five of these this quarter but have only posted reviews for two so far – the rest will be coming soon. I also abandoned one at too early a stage to make a review worthwhile. To see the full challenge, click here.

29.  The Middle Temple Murder by JS Fletcher – When young newspaper editor Frank Spargo happens upon a murder scene late one night, his journalistic instincts lead him to follow the story. It’s dated in style but well written, cleverly plotted and entertaining – I enjoyed it a lot. 4½ stars.

30.  The Case of Miss Elliot by Baroness Orczy – An old man sits in the corner of a teahouse, endlessly twisting pieces of string into elaborate knots and mulling over the great unsolved mysteries of the day, in this collection of twelve short stories. Reasonably enjoyable but not wholly satisfying. 3½ stars.

31.  Case for Three Detectives by Leo Bruce – This is a parody spoofing three detectives, Wimsey, Poirot and Father Brown. I found it so dire as to be unreadable. Sometimes things are just old, not vintage. Can’t understand why Martin Edwards included this one, to be honest. Abandoned too early to review, so zero stars.

31 down, 71 to go!

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5 x 5 Challenge

Three reviewed for this challenge this quarter! Still a long way to go though…

5.  A Mercy by Toni Morrison. As Rebekka Vaark lies sick, possibly dying, of smallpox, we learn of the people who make up the household – how they came to be there, how they live, the relationships between them. And we get a picture of the birth of America, built with the blood and toil of those who came voluntarily and those who were brought against their will. Beautiful writing, excellent characterisation. 5 stars.

6.  The Pearl by John Steinbeck. One day, poor pearl fisherman Kino finds a huge and lustrous pearl, so valuable that it will change his life for ever. But when word spreads of his find, human greed will work its evil, dragging Kino into a nightmare. Beautiful prose, but really, Steinbeck’s view of the world is utterly joyless. He really should have eaten more chocolate. 3½ stars.

7. Walking Wounded by William McIlvanney. McIlvanney takes to the short story form to create a collection of character studies of the inhabitants of his recurring setting of fictional Graithnock. Another excellent book from the modern Scottish bard – wonderfully written and insightful about the culture in which it’s set. 5 stars.

7 down, 18 to go!

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Another great quarter’s reading, even if I’m still behind! Thank you for joining me on my reading adventures and…

Here’s to more great reading next quarter! 😀

Walking Wounded by William McIlvanney

Our national mirror…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

McIlvanney takes to the short story form to create a collection of character studies of the inhabitants of his recurring setting of Graithnock, which is a lightly fictionalised version of Kilmarnock, an industrial town in Ayrshire in the West of Scotland. The stories take place just as the ‘70s were giving way to the ‘80s – a time when hope seemed to be turning to despair in light of the Thatcherite policies that would rip the industrial heart out of Scotland over the next decade. McIlvanney rarely addresses politics directly in his work but it infuses everything he writes and, as a result, his books catch the national psyche at a given moment in time. His characters’ stories grow out of their social and cultural circumstances.

The stories here often overlap and share commonalities – many of the characters know each other, drink in the same pub, share the same histories. So they gradually build together to give a full picture of the town and to show how, in any society, the actions of the individual arise from and add to the prevailing culture. With his usual wonderfully insightful prose, McIlvanney makes us care about these people – we laugh with them and cry with them, celebrate their victories, sorrow over their disappointments and mourn their griefs. And we (certainly the Scots among us) recognise ourselves in at least some of them, as we recognise our friends and neighbours in the others.

Margaret and John Hislop had one of those marriages where there wasn’t room to swing an ego. All was mutual justice and consideration and fairness. He only golfed between the hours of two and six on a Sunday because that was when she visited her mother. Her night-class was always on a Tuesday, regardless of what was available then, for that was when he worked late. Both watched television programmes which were neither’s favourite. They didn’t have arguments, they had discussions. It was a marriage made by committee and each day passed like a stifled yawn. It was as if the family crypt had been ordered early and they were living in it.

I love McIlvanney. Having come late to his work as his long career drew to a close, I am reading his books with a retrospective eye and a feeling of profound familiarity – the twentieth century Scottish world he recorded is the one that I too lived. His culture and language and humour are mine too, his people are people I knew, his view of Scotland and the world aligns largely with my own. My only hesitation about him, and I wonder if this is the reason that despite his huge talent he’s still not as widely known as he should be, is that perhaps his books are so deeply embedded in our small society that possibly they don’t have the same resonance for people not so familiar with it. The humanity of his characters is undoubtedly universal, but perhaps a Scottish reader’s instinctive understanding of their cultural hinterland is why he’s so much more revered in Scotland than outside it.

Book 7 of 25

The first story in the book is an example of what I mean. It tells of a young lad asking his boss for a large loan and three months off work. The boss not unnaturally wants to know the reason, and the lad tells him he wants to go to Argentina to see Scotland play in the World Cup. The boss first tries to talk him out of this ridiculous dream, then realises that the boy is a younger version of himself – that he once dared to dream big too – and reflects on how his life has narrowed into a staid middle-aged routine. Standard short story fare, as I summarise it, although wonderfully written, but oh! If you’d been young in Scotland in 1978 when we qualified for the World Cup! If you’d experienced the ecstatic excitement, the national pride, the Mohammed Ali-like hubris of the team manager, Ally MacLeod, the half-believed dream that we might, like Jack, kill the giants and bring home the cup! If you’d stood in the national stadium with thousands upon thousands of others in Ally’s Tartan Army to cheer and sing the team on their way! And if, three games later, you’d wept bitter tears of heartbreak when they slunk home – out in the first round – beaten on goal difference – humiliated! Then you’d understand! This isn’t just a story of two men – it’s a story of Scotland’s crushed dreams!

Ally’s Tartan Army send off – that’s me in the crowd!
Life lesson: Never hold your victory parade before the tournament…

Few of the stories are based around such a specific event, but many of them make use of aspects of working class Scottish culture of the time, especially from the male perspective – football, pubs and getting drunk, dog racing, gambling. What they’re about, however, is men and women trying to survive the things life throws at them – love, marriage, divorce, jobs and unemployment, bereavement, petty crime, violence, prison. Makes it sound much gloomier than it is – while some of the stories made me cry, just as many made me laugh, and a couple made me do both at the same time. McIlvanney’s characters are mostly resilient – the walking wounded of the title. Life may knock them down but they crawl back up, often with a pawky quip at fate’s expense, and ready themselves to face tomorrow.

William McIlvanney

McIlvanney hailed from the same area as our national bard, Robert Burns, and I suspect that Benny’s thoughts in the following quote may be McIlvanney’s own…

Benny loved Robert Burns, not just the poetry, which he could quote at great and sometimes pub-emptying length, but the man, the hard life, the democratic stance of him, the sense he gave of effortlessly incarnating Scottishness, the fact that he, like Benny, was an Ayrshireman. Scottishness was very important to Benny. He wasn’t sure what it was but, whatever it was, it bit like lockjaw and the fever of it was in his blood. When he read Burns, he looked in a national mirror that told him who he was and forbade him to be diminished by what other people had. He was enough in himself.

I wish very much that I could have told him that, what Burns meant to Benny, McIlvanney has come to mean to me. Our bard of the twentieth century – our national mirror.

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The Pearl by John Steinbeck

Abandon hope…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

Following in the tradition of generations of his family, Kino fishes for pearls on the Gulf coast, earning just enough to provide for his wife, Juana, and their baby son, Coyotito. One day, Kino finds a huge and lustrous pearl, so valuable that it will change his life for ever. He dreams of new clothes for Juana, a rifle for himself and, most importantly, Coyotito will be able to go to school and learn the secrets that will enable him to help bring his small community out of their hard existence into the modern world. But when word spreads of his find, human greed will work its evil, dragging Kino into a nightmare…

OK, Steinbeck writes beautiful prose, I grant you. But oh my, he’s depressing! He’s the kind of guy that would look at a birthday cake and see it as a symbol of encroaching mortality. The only good people in Steinbeck’s world are the poor and ignorant. Give them wealth or knowledge and they are instantly corrupted by the evils of discontent and greed. I’m not sure what exactly his political philosophy was. It’s always suggested that he leaned, at least, towards communism, but (I speak of the philosophy, not the actuality, here) communism is exactly about trying to lift the poor out of poverty and ignorance. In this bleak little story, I’m guessing he’s maybe trying to say capitalism is A Bad Thing, but it comes over more as if we should all just stay wallowing in our ancestral dirt since any attempt to rise out of it will inevitably lead to tragedy. As I say, depressing – the kind of antithesis of the American Dream.

Book 6 of 25

In length, it falls somewhere between short story and novella, but the limited number of characters means there’s plenty of time for us to grow to care about what happens to the little family, while the simplicity of the fable-like story allows Steinbeck room to play to his major strength, of describing nature and man’s place in it in with great beauty and emotional resonance. In a very short space, he creates a clear picture of the lives of the villagers, largely unchanged for centuries, but with the modern capitalist world encroaching ever nearer. We see the bottled up resentment of these peasants, victims of wave after wave of invaders, each out to exploit. We see the outward deference that forms a thin veneer over their feelings of helplessness and bitterness. And we see how easily one event can break that veneer, releasing all the pent-up hostility of the oppressed for their oppressors.

I don’t exactly know why Steinbeck always annoys me so much. I always say it’s because he’s emotionally manipulative and I realise the vagueness of that, because of course all fiction writers hope to manipulate their readers’ emotions to some degree. I think it’s that he treats his characters so cruelly to create that emotional wrench. If they have a flash of joy, you know they’ll quickly learn to bitterly regret it. If they have momentary hope in their heart, they will soon be forced back to their natural despair. If they feel love, then you can be about 99% certain the object of that love will die, horribly. Dead dog syndrome taken to extremes, and somehow it all leaves me feeling angry and a bit soiled.

John Steinbeck

Despite that, I admire his prose, and I find it fascinating that such an anti-capitalist should be so revered in America, a country that, when it judges a man’s worth, is more likely to be considering his bank balance than the content of his character. A country where “socialist” is seen as the vilest insult you can hurl at someone, and yet Steinbeck is taught in schools. Why, I wonder? And I wonder too how much Steinbeck’s utterly joyless depiction of the apparent pointlessness of attempting to seek a better life for oneself and one’s family plays subconsciously into the American distaste for socialism. Just once, I’d like to see one of his characters succeed in improving their lot – not to become a fancy billionaire President with three wives and a porn-star mistress, perhaps; we can’t all achieve the American Dream – but to have a child grow up healthy and happy and educated and able to lead a productive, moral life. Is that too much to ask? Apparently, in Steinbeck’s grim view of the human condition, it is.

A great writer I wish I could love more, but I fear our view of the world is too different for that to ever happen. I shall continue to drink from my half-full glass while Steinbeck and his poor characters die agonisingly of thirst. East of Eden next. Must make sure I get in extra chocolate supplies…

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Book 18 of 20

A Mercy by Toni Morrison

Birth pangs…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

As Rebekka Vaark lies sick, possibly dying, of smallpox, her young slave, Florens, sets out to find and bring back the man the mistress thinks will be able to cure her. As Florens makes her difficult and dangerous journey through the still wild Virginia of 1690, where humans and beasts present different though equal threats, we will learn of the people who make up the household – how they came to be there, how they live, the relationships between them. And we will get a picture of the birth of America, built with the blood and toil of those who came voluntarily and those who were brought against their will.

I’m having a bit of a rollercoaster ride with Toni Morrison. Having been stunned by the power of Beloved, I was then a little disappointed by the heavy-handed symbolism of Song of Solomon, so I didn’t quite know what to expect from this one. Having now read it, I suspect it may have layers of depth that would require further readings to fully catch, but even on this one reading I found it a wonderfully insightful and nuanced picture of the early settlers in the New World, and a beautifully told story of the human spirit battling against hardship.

Jacob Vaark has inherited a piece of land and sets out to farm it, sending back to England for a woman willing to become his wife. Rebekka tells her story of sailing across the ocean to marry a man she has never met. She is lucky – he is kind and they grow to love one another. We see the overcrowded filth and poverty of the London she has left behind and her growing delight at the space, pure air, clean water of her new home. Jacob is kind in other ways, gradually collecting waifs and strays to work on the farm. Florens came to them as a child, traded as payment of a debt owed to Jacob. Lina, a Native American, survived the smallpox brought by the settlers which wiped out almost all of her village. Rootless, she too finds a home in the Vaark household. And Sorrow, turned out by her employers for the sin of being impure, is taken in by Jacob. But Jacob’s kindness is enabled by his investments in slave plantations in Barbados – the nature of America’s foundation is in the background but never forgotten.

….Just then the little girl stepped from behind the mother. On he feet was a pair of way-too-big woman’s shoes. Perhaps it was that feeling of license, a newly recovered recklessness along with the sight of those little legs rising like two bramble stocks from the bashed and broken shoes, that made him laugh. A loud, chest-heaving laugh at the comedy, the hopeless irritation, of the visit. His laughter had not subsided when the woman cradling the small boy on her hip came forward. Her voice was barely above a whisper but there was no mistaking its urgency.
….“Please, Senhor. Not me. Take her. Take my daughter.”

One of the things I appreciated about this is that Morrison doesn’t limit it to the story of African slaves. She shows that, while race is clearly already a dividing line, there are other factors – wealth and poverty, gender, competing religions – that define the hierarchies within this still-forming society. We hear about the indentured servants, often white, who are bought and sold much like the Africans; the women who are, if they are lucky, traded as wives; the Native Americans, their population already being ravaged by new illnesses even before they are driven from their lands. She also shows with a good deal of subtlety how kindness is easier in good times; that friendship between people wielding unequal power is fragile, perhaps too fragile to survive when times get tough. She shows how easy it is for good people to convince themselves that they have rights of ownership and control over the lives of others, and easier still to slide unthinkingly into abuse of power. In fact, in microcosm, she shows that the problems of today’s America arise from the circumstances of its conception and birth.

Toni Morrison
Photo: Reuters

But these characters are not merely symbols of their race or place in society. In what is a very short book, each has time to develop into a fully rounded human being, complete with vulnerabilities and flaws, not always likeable but fully empathetic. Some tell us their own stories; others we are told about in third person. Florens has a dialect and uses a kind of stream of consciousness narrative, making her sections the hardest to read but also the deepest – she is the heart of the story. We learn about the men – Jacob himself and the two indentured servants who work on the farm – but the book is centred on the women, as individuals and on their relationships with each other. Motherhood is a major theme, and a difficult one at a time when infant death was a common occurrence. There are stories of the sacrifices mothers make for their children, the jealousies of those women who are childless for others who have healthy babies, the prejudices against mothers who bear children out of wedlock, even when this is as a result of rape, and the fulfilment that some women only find through motherhood.

Book 5 of 25

This doesn’t have the emotional impact of Beloved, but it’s a beautifully rendered picture of womankind in all her complexities, and of inequality, be that of race or wealth or gender or power, and how it distorts the human spirit. But Morrison offers the possibility for redemption. The stories of these women are hard, often bleak, and Morrison doesn’t provide facile, happy endings; but there is a sense that the love mothers have for their children gives hope for a better future. One day, perhaps.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Book 16 of 20

TBR Thursday 204… and Quarterly Round-Up

TBR Quarterly Report

At the New Year, as I do every year, I set myself some targets for my various reading challenges and for the reduction of my ever-expanding TBR. I was doing pretty well at the first check-in at the end of March, but I always start off full of enthusiasm. It’s the summer months that do for me – I read less, and lots of new shiny books have appeared so that my commitment to my challenges goes a bit wobbly.

So here we are – the second check-in of the year…

Uh-oh! It’s all beginning to go horribly wrong again! The MMM challenge is going fine, and I’m just about keeping the new releases under control. But the other challenges are sooooooo behind! Partly this is because I haven’t read much for the last few weeks, and also the classics I’ve read this year have been some of the chunkier ones. But even so. Some swift remedial work will be required. Look out for lots of classics and stuff over the next three months…

The TBR hasn’t dropped much, but thanks to yet another bout of rigorous (and emotionally devastating) culling, the more important combined TBR/wishlist reduction is well on track! I might be a loser, but I’m also a winner!

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The Around the World in 80 Books Challenge

Last check-in was in March, and this quarter I’ve visited a couple of places and been on a trek across Europe!

On the Main Journey (made by the characters in Around the World in 80 Days) I helped investigate a murder with Inspector Chen of the Shanghai police in Qiu Xiaolong’s excellent Death of a Red Heroine. Then I travelled from Portugal through Spain, over the sea to Italy and finally to Austria in José Saramago’s whimsical The Elephant’s Journey, ticking off the tricky elephant travel box as I went.

I had only one detour this quarter, but it’s one of the best trips I’ve taken, and I’d probably never have gone had it not been for this challenge – which is why I love it! Leila and her friends took me on a life-affirming tour of the underbelly of Istanbul in Elif Shafak’s wonderful 10 Minutes and 38 Seconds in this Strange World.

To see the full challenge including the Main Journey and all detours, click here.

63 down, 17 to go!

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The Classics Club

I’ve reviewed just three books from my Classics Club list this quarter and have one other pending…

42. The Fair Maid of Perth by Sir Walter Scott – 5 bright and twinkling stars for this excellent Scottish classic – a historical novel that tells the story of Catherine Glover, the Fair Maid, who is beloved by the town’s famed armourer, Henry Smith of the Wynd. But she has also caught the eye of the pleasure loving and dissolute Earl of Rothsay, eldest son and heir to King Robert III. Great story, great writing, great book!

43. Bath Tangle by Georgette Heyer – Heyer’s Regency romances are the ultimate in comfort reading. This one wasn’t my favourite because I wasn’t so keen on the rather bullying hero and heroine, but there are some great secondary characters and it’s always fun to visit Bath. 4 stars.

44. The Expedition of Humphry Clinker by Tobias Smollett – 5 stars again for another Scottish classic (am I biased? I think I might be…). Matthew Bramble, hypochondriac and charitable Welsh gentleman with a choleric temper and a humorously jaundiced view of life, takes his family on a journey round Britain seeking benefit to his health. As each member of the party writes letters to their friends we see the country and its regional customs through their eyes, meeting with some interesting and often eccentric characters, and being witness to some hilarious (and some not so hilarious) episodes along the way.

I should be at about the three-fifths mark now, so I’m a good bit behind. I’ll need to do some intensive Classics reading over the next few months!

44 down, 46 to go!

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Murder Mystery Mayhem

I’ve done a bit of catching up on this over the last three months, having reviewed five and with another one pending. Another challenge I’m thoroughly enjoying, being constantly surprised by the variety of styles and the wide range in tone, all the way from humour to near noir. To see the full challenge, click here.

24.  Smallbone Deceased by Michael Gilbert –  When a rather decaying corpse turns up in a deed box in a lawyer’s office, Inspector Hazlerigg enlists the help of one of the new lawyers to investigate. Loved this one – 5 stars.

25.  Clouds of Witness by Dorothy L Sayers – oh dear! I really can’t stand Sayers’ snobbery and it’s out in full force here. Plus the plotting is fundamentally silly and the solution is a major cop-out. Just 2 stars.

26.  Death of an Airman by Christopher St. John Sprigg – when an experienced flying instructor crashes everyone is ready to write it off as a tragic accident. Everyone except for the Bishop of Cootamundra, that is, a pupil at the flying school. The plotting is messy and crosses the credibility line by miles, but the characterisation and gentle humour make up for it. 4 stars.

27.  The Blotting Book by EF Benson – well-meaning but greedy trustee Edward Taynton has been gambling with his client’s inheritance. When it looks as if this might be revealed before he can fix it, things begin to go very wrong. A thoroughly enjoyable, if not very mystifying, novella-length mystery – 5 stars.

28.  The Red Redmaynes by Eden Phillpotts – When Inspector Mark Brendon is investigating a murder, he is hampered by the fact that he has fallen head over heels in love with the victim’s lovely young widow. Great settings – Dartmoor and Italy – and a surprisingly modern-feeling motivation for the crime make up for the rather messy structure and some implausibility. 4 stars.

28 down, 74 to go!

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5 x 5 Challenge

Finally! I managed to actually review a couple for this challenge this quarter! Still going very slowly with it, though…

3.  Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison. Sadly, this one failed to meet my perhaps over-high expectations. The story of an African-American man learning about his history and thus finding his own identity is filled with symbolism that didn’t seem to symbolise much, to me at least, and it’s filled with repeated scenes of ugliness and brutality. The excellent prose didn’t quite cover its weaknesses. 3 stars.

4.  The Kiln by William McIlvanney. As Tam Docherty is on his way home to the Ayrshire town where he was born and bred, he is visited by memories of his childhood and adolescence, his later life and marriage, but mostly of the summer of 1955 when, between leaving school and going to University, he worked in the local brickworks for a few months, and learned a little about life, girls and himself. Loved this sequel to the wonderful Docherty – together the two books tell the story of the working classes in Scotland through the twentieth century. 5 stars.

4 down, 21 to go!

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I may not have met my targets this quarter, but I’ve still read some jolly fine books!
I’m taking a Wimbledon break now, so I’ll see you in a week or so.

Meantime, thank you for joining me on my reading adventures and…

Here’s to more great reading next quarter! 😀

The Kiln by William McIlvanney

A man and a nation…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When we first meet him, Tam Docherty, the first person narrator, is on his way from his home in Grenoble back to Graithnock, the Ayrshire town where he was born and bred. As he travels, he is visited by memories of his childhood and adolescence, his later life and marriage, but mostly of the summer of 1955 when, between leaving school and going to University, he worked in the local brickworks for a few months, and learned a little about life, girls and himself.

Tam is the grandson of the first Tam who was the central character in Docherty, McIlvanney’s earlier book set before and after WW1. In that book, the first Tam was determined that his son, Conn, would not follow him down the mines – that Conn would get an education and raise himself out of the hard-scrabble hand-to-mouth existence of his forebears. Older Tam’s dreams took a little longer to be realised, and it’s with young Tam, Conn’s son, that we see the first generation of the family go to university and move out of the working class, economically at least.

In large part a coming-of-age story, the present of the book, published in 1996, also shows us Tam in middle-age, contrasting the hopes and dreams of his seventeen-year-old self with the reality of how his life has turned out. Tam’s early story, I would guess, is heavily autobiographical – he is a working-class lad from a fictionalised version of McIlvanney’s birth town of Kilmarnock, with an education and aspirations to be a writer. The later years, I suspect, diverge more from actual events in McIlvanney’s life, but read very much as though we are reading his personal reflections, and perhaps glimpsing his own feelings of disappointment that life hadn’t turned out quite as glitteringly as he’d once dared to hope.

However, Tam’s story reflects the lives of so many Scots of his generation that it also tells the story of the nation in the latter half of the twentieth century. Growing up in the ‘50s in a country that had emerged from the second devastating war of the century determined that this time we really would make a better world, Tam had opportunities no previous generation of working class children had, not the least of which was free university education. For many families like Tam’s, this would be the first time when social mobility was a real possibility, with graduates able to lift themselves out of the pits and shipyards and factories into teaching, medicine, law. But McIlvanney shows the disconnect this caused for many between their working class roots and their middle class ambitions. As Tam, the wee lad from Graithnock, becomes Tom, Master of Arts, a teacher and writer, he sits uneasily between the two classes, neither fully one nor the other, and perhaps he never truly believes that he deserves the life he’s now living. As a result, he seems unable to avoid wrecking everything he achieves. And his feelings of personal failure mirror those of the nation, as those dreams of the ‘50s fade into the industrial devastation of the ‘80s and ‘90s, with Scotland too left disillusioned and angry.

The book is a wonderful mix of humour, nostalgia and pathos. Young Tam, with whom we spend by far the most time, is on the cusp of adulthood and in the midst of a desperate and very funny quest to lose his virginity. Although the period is a couple of decades earlier than my own teen years, I found the attitudes and social manners entirely recognisable, and described with real warmth and affection. It’s a man’s world, for sure, but the women are strong and opinionated, and give as good as they get. It’s Tam’s mother who is the driving force for him to go to University – his father, like so many men of that time, is struggling with the idea that his son won’t follow in his footsteps. Again, McIlvanney uses them to show the two opposing forces faced by the youth of that era – the push to leap into the adventure of the unknown, the pull to stay in the safety of the familiar.

William McIlvanney

I found middle-aged Tom just as believable, though less entertaining. His disappointment leads him to be argumentative and confrontational, to the point of driving away those closest to him. However, his journey home reminds him of who he once was and what his hopes were, and gives him time and space to reflect on who he now is and, to a degree, on what Scotland now is. I wondered how the tone might have changed had McIlvanney written the book ten or twenty years later, when his personal stature had grown to the point where almost every Scottish writer points to him as an influence, and when Scotland had achieved its own Parliament and revived its sense of national identity. But that would have been a different book, and not necessarily a better one. Another excellent novel from the pen of the Scottish master – an insightful and enjoyable look at a man and, through his story, at a nation. Highly recommended.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison

Symbolic, but of what? 

🙂 🙂 🙂

Macon Dead III has grown up in Michigan, the son of a harsh, property-owning landlord and the local black doctor’s daughter. In the course of the book, he will travel to the South, to Virginia, where he will learn more about the history of his family, his metaphorical roots, and to some degree, find his own identity and the meaning of his life.

Sometimes it depends when we read a story how much we connect to it, and unfortunately I read this at a time when I probably wasn’t giving it the attention it requires. I’m not therefore going to try to write an in-depth review – these are simply my feelings about the book, which I found disappointing.

The prose is very good, of course, sometimes excellent, though never, in my view, with the poetry and power of some of the prose in Beloved. The story takes forever to kick off, well into the second half before I felt I had any clear idea of what the book was attempting to be about. The last third or so was considerably more interesting and enjoyable than the rest of the book which dragged along at a snail’s pace replacing narrative drive with heavy-handed and yet still obscure symbolism.

Most of the characters have Biblical names and I assume that’s supposed to have some significance. I freely admit that, as a lifelong atheist, my knowledge of Bible stories is sketchy, but I couldn’t tie what little I knew about the Biblical originals to the characters at all. Maybe this was a failing on my part, but I can usually cope with religious symbolism well enough. Here I found the names and my attempt to see their relevance a distraction. The symbolism regarding flight and African folklore worked rather better for me.

The other thing that bothered me may well again say more about me than the book; namely, that the lives of the people in this black community seem full of self-created ugliness and near bestiality. Everything is about sex or bodily functions – no-one seems to even try to lift themselves above the animal passions, intellectually or morally. Is urinating on other people normal in black American communities? I wouldn’t have though so, but it seems to be in this one. Maybe that’s symbolic too, but of what? Necrophilia, incest, women suckling their sons in a highly sexualised way, women wanting to kill or die for the loss of lovers, men beating women and each other – I longed for at least a couple of characters to connect on a rational rather than a physical level. To a degree in the early part of the book, Macon and his childhood friend Guitar achieve this, but their friendship gradually distorts into a strange and unconvincing kind of violent hatred.

Toni Morrison

I wondered if perhaps Morrison was trying to show how the history of slavery and subjugation had brutalised black culture, with perhaps even a call to arms for black people to support and lift each other rather than submitting to the characterisation and caricaturing allocated to them by the dominant white culture. But I felt maybe I was inventing that to give me some reason not to simply be a bit revolted by it all. I reckon if a white author had portrayed black people like this there would have been outrage, and in my view, rightly so. So I gave myself permission to be a little outraged anyway, since I’ve never fully bought into the idea that being part of a culture confers a greater right to abuse and demean it (which is why you’ll never see an Irvine Welsh book on my blog). I found myself asking: if African-American culture is really as universally debased and degraded as this portrayal suggests, how did Toni Morrison manage to rise from it?

And what on earth is the significance of Pilate having no navel?? (This is not a rhetorical question – if you know or have a theory, I’m interested…)

Nope, I feel I either didn’t understand this at all, or else there’s nothing much to understand beneath the over-heavy symbolism and the basic story of the resonating, brutalising impact of slavery and racism; although the eloquent prose made it readable and even enjoyable in parts. Apologies to all who love it. Maybe I’ll read it again sometime when I’m in a more receptive frame of mind. Or maybe not.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 194… and Quarterly Round-Up

TBR Quarterly Report

At the New Year, I set myself some targets for my various reading challenges and for the reduction of my ever-expanding TBR. I do this each year because secretly I’m a masochist who thrives on feelings of personal failure it’s always good to have something to aim for. Things usually start well at the beginning of the year when my enthusiasm is high and then it all begins to go horribly wrong… round about April… and descends past laughable in the summer, to embarrassing by autumn, ending up in full-scale hair-raising horror by the depths of winter. It’s such fun!

So here we are – the first check-in of the year, and probably the best…

Impressive, huh? It would have been even better if I hadn’t abandoned Cannery Row for not having a plot (and to be fair, I was in the middle of a major reading slump and not enjoying much at that point. I may try it again later.) It should have been the third book for my 5 x 5 Challenge and the fifth on my Classics Club list. The sixth on the CC list is The Fair Maid of Perth which I’m currently reading but didn’t manage to finish in time to include it at the quarter’s end. So overall pretty successful on the challenges!

The TBR is up but, thanks to another bout of rigorous (and heart-rending) culling, the combined TBR/wishlist reduction is on track! Yeah, I’m as surprised at that as you are…

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The Around the World in 80 Books Challenge

Last check-in was in December, and I’ve been piling up the frequent flyer miles since then! I’ve read six, though I’ve only reviewed five of them so far, plus I had one left over from 2018 that I reviewed in January.

On the Main Journey (of the places mentioned in Around the World in 80 Days) there are a couple of places that Jules Verne invented, which makes finding books for them particularly difficult! One such place is Kholby, a fictional town or village in Uttar Pradesh in northern India. So I got as close as I could by visiting Agra, also in Uttar Pradesh, with the wonderful tour-guide Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in The Sign of the Four. Then I had a frankly disappointing short break in Hong Kong with Rea Tarvydas in How to Pick Up a Maid in Statue Square. If I get time, I’ll revisit Hong Kong before the challenge ends.

My first detour of the quarter was to Norway, where I got the chance to watch the police solve a cold case in Jørn Lier Horst’s The Katharina Code. Then off to South Korea with Un-Su Kim in The Plotters, a strange but compelling story of feuding assassins. Tim Flannery took me on an amazing journey all over Europe geographically and through time, showing me the flora and fauna through the ages and telling me tales of the ascent of man. Then Yangsze Choo whisked me off to colonial Malay in The Night Tiger, a wonderful tale steeped in the folklore of the Chinese Malaysians. Loving this challenge!

To see the full challenge including the Main Journey and all detours, click here.

60 down, 20 to go!

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The Classics Club

I’ve read four books from my Classics Club list this quarter but have only reviewed three of them so far. However I’ve also reviewed a couple that were hanging over from last year…

37. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote – 4 stars for this “non-fiction novel” in which Capote examines the minds and crimes of two real-life murderers. The writing is superb, but I wasn’t keen on the blurring of the lines between fact and fiction which left me resorting to Google to find out the truth of what happened.

38. Childhood’s End by Arthur C Clarke – a disappointed 3 stars for this sci-fi classic which didn’t wow me as much as I’d hoped. I’m still glad to have read it though, since it’s the book that inspired Stanley Kubrick’s collaboration with Clarke on the amazing film, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

39. Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs – the full 5 stars for this romping adventure story. Lots of stuff about evolution as it was viewed back then, with racism and sexism of its time, but it’s so full of thrills, excitement, high love and general drama that it swept me along on a tsunami-sized wave of fun.

40. The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers – 4½ stars for this espionage adventure about two young Englishmen who set out to foil German invasion plans back in 1903. The second half gets slowed down by Childers’ desire to give a warning about the growing threat from German naval power, but an excellent read overall.

41. Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens – the iniquity of debtors’ prisons, nepotism within the ruling classes, and the dangers of speculation on the stock market. Along the way, Dickens produces his usual dazzling array of characterisation and mix of drama, humour and occasional horror. The full 5 stars!

Still running behind, but not hopelessly. I’m making three changes to my list:

  • To replace the abandoned Cannery Row, I’ve added East of Eden. Glutton for punishment, me!
  • I’ve been given a copy of Oxford World’s Classics new edition of Middlemarch for review, so am adding it and removing The Heart of the Matter to make room.
  • I’ve also got the OWC’s new translation of Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Seas (yeah, the title has changed too!), so am removing Something Wicked This Way Comes to make space. (Hmm… three short books out, three stonkers in – not sure I’m doing this right…)

41 down, 49 to go!

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Murder Mystery Mayhem

I’m still going really slowly on this challenge, because of all the other vintage crime I’ve been lucky enough to receive for review. I’ve read three this quarter, but have only reviewed one so far. To see the full challenge, click here.

23.  Malice Aforethought by Francis Iles –  a doctor plans to murder his inconvenient wife in this ironical crime novel. Irony is never my favourite thing, so this didn’t work as well for me as I’d hoped. Just 3 stars.

23 down, 79 to go!

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5 x 5 Challenge

Oh, dear! This challenge is turning out to be a real albatross and I’m thinking of abandoning it, but I’ll stick it out a bit longer. This quarter I abandoned one and read two, neither of which I’ve yet reviewed, so nothing to report.

2 down, 23 to go!

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An unexpectedly good quarter’s reading, considering what a pig life has been! Thank goodness for books!
Thank you for joining me on my reading adventures and…

Here’s to more great reading next quarter! 😀

 

TBR Thursday 184… and Quarterly Round-Up

TBR Quarterly Report

Last 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…

In a last ditch attempt to get down to the figure I set in my New Year’s Resolutions last year, I brutally culled the wishlist one last time, which led to much wailing and gnashing of teeth. Did I succeed? All shall be revealed when I post this year’s resolutions on Monday! But I’m getting so good at chopping, I’m thinking of taking up a new career…

 

I’ve done rubbishly on all my challenges this quarter, mainly because I’d developed a big backlog of review copies so I’ve been frantically reading them instead…

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The Around the World in 80 Books Challenge

Last check-in was in September, and I’ve been nowhere since then! Nowhere!

However, I did pretty well taking the year as a whole, and will be packing my suitcase again in the New Year – I have some great books lined up!

To see the full challenge including the Main Journey and all detours, click here.

54 down, 26 to go!

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The Classics Club

I’ve actually read five books from my Classics Club list this quarter but have only reviewed two so far, so expect a little splurge of classics reviews in January.

35. Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy – 5 stars for this wonderful book that asks many questions that are still relevant in today’s world, about class, gender and how people are impacted by modernisation.

36. No Name by William Wilkie Collins – I’m afraid I found this book tedious, filled with unlikeable characters about whom I cared not a jot. Just 2 stars.

Again, I’ve done pretty well over the year as a whole. I should be halfway through at this stage and I’m only a little behind if you add in the ones awaiting review. And I’ve been tackling some of the longer ones recently so they’re not all left till the end.

36 down, 54 to go!

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Murder Mystery Mayhem

I’m going really slowly on this challenge, because of all the other vintage crime I’ve been lucky enough to receive for review, so I only managed a couple this quarter. To see the full challenge, click here.

21.  The Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispin – this is one of those crime novels that goes way beyond the credibility line, but makes up for its general silliness by being a whole lot of fun. I loved it! 5 stars.

22.  The Poisoned Chocolates Case by Anthony Berkeley – 5 stars again for this as Berkeley gently mocks the conventions of the mystery novel, and has a lot of fun at his fellow mystery writers’ expense, and his own. Highly entertaining and cleverly done!

22 down, 80 to go!

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5 x 5 Challenge

Oh, dear! I just can’t seem to get anywhere with this challenge. I’m doing great at acquiring the books – just not so good at actually finding time to read them! Next year…

2 down, 23 to go!

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Not too successful with the challenges, then, but a good quarter’s reading nevertheless!
Thank you for joining me on my reading adventures and…

Here’s to more great reading next quarter! 😀

 

TBR Thursday 175… and Quarterly Round-Up

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…

Impressively the overall figure has fallen again! It would have been even better if I hadn’t had a major splurge on review copies, but sometimes a splurge is irresistible. I’m still being rigid about adding sparingly to the wishlist and culling it ruthlessly at the end of every month. A book has to persuade me it’s essential to my happiness and wellbeing to win a coveted spot! I still have a long way to go to achieve my New Year’s Resolution – to reduce the overall total to 360. I shall sharpen my culling shears…

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The Around the World in 80 Books Challenge

Last check-in was in June, and I’ve only made a couple of trips since then…

I actually read The Dain Curse back in June but forgot to include it in this challenge last quarter – this rather silly, almost entirely incomprehensible, but surprisingly entertaining book took me to San Francisco, one of the stops on the Main List. I visited Uruguay and several other countries in South America in the company of political exiles and their families, in Mario Benedetti’s wonderful Springtime in a Broken Mirror. And master storyteller Robert Harris took me back in time to Ancient Rome in Imperium for some political shenanigans in the company of Cicero and his pals. (I also discovered I’d been to Canada twice, so have dropped one of them off the list.)

Must do better! And must get to Africa!!

To see the full challenge including the Main Journey and all detours, click here.

54 down, 26 to go!

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The Classics Club

I’ve reviewed six from my Classics Club list this quarter, which means I’ve caught up a little more. I’ll be slowing down for a bit though as I really must tackle some of the longer ones on my list rather than leaving them all to the end…

29. The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan – 4 stars for this “shocker”, an action thriller set amidst the murky world of wartime foreign agents, and involving much running around the moors of south-west Scotland.

30. The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham – 5 stars for this, one of the finest examples of the science fiction books that grew out of Cold War paranoia – a suddenly dystopian society where the science horrors are balanced by an exceptionally strong human story and one of the best female characters in the genre.

31. Mildred Pierce by James M Cain – poor writing style, psychologically unconvincing and terminally dull. I feel I was generous in giving this tale of a troubled mother/daughter relationship in Depression-era America 2 stars.

32. The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M Cain again. 4 reluctant stars for this noir so black there’s no gleam of light, hope or beauty. Superbly done, but to what end? Left me feeling I needed to scrub my mind clean.

33. Marriage by Susan Ferrier – 3½ stars for this 1818 tale of two sisters, one good and tediously pious, the other mercenary but underdeveloped. Hyped by the publisher as the Scottish Jane Austen, I fear that the comparison doesn’t work to this one’s advantage.

34. Imagined Corners by Willa Muir – a modernist look at Scottish society through the prism of the small town of Calderwick and the families who live there. Feminism, repression and religion – the book takes on a lot and partially delivers. 4 stars.

I’ve also made a couple more changes to my list. I abandoned Miss Lonelyhearts after about 10 pages of abortion, suicide, marital rape and religious mania. That made me look again at my American list, which has been hugely disappointing so far, pulling the whole challenge down. I’m toying with swapping the rest out for something else – maybe Irish, maybe translated fiction. But perhaps I’ve just had some unlucky choices so far, so I’ll have one last rejig before I do:

  • I’ve replaced Miss Lonelyhearts with In the Heat of the Night by John Ball – at least it will be a good excuse to re-watch the excellent film.
  • And I’ve removed The Jungle – another one that sounds deliberately designed to show the miserable pointlessness of existence – and replaced it with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey.

34 down, 56 to go!

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Murder Mystery Mayhem

This quarter I’ve read just three books for this one, but they were all excellent so I don’t mind. To see the full challenge, click here.

18.  The Secret of High Eldersham by Miles Burton – mysterious goings-on and nefarious crimes in an English village. More of a thriller than a mystery, and quite dark – enjoyed this a lot! 5 stars.

19.  The Division Bell Mystery by Ellen Wilkinson – a locked room mystery set in the Houses of Parliament, written by one of early women MPs. A good mystery and a fun look at all the quirky traditions of Parliament. 4½ stars.

20.  The Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie – Miss Marple’s first outing as she uses all her knowledge of human nature and evil to discover who shot Colonel Protheroe in the vicar’s study. One of the best! 5 stars.

20 down, 82 to go!

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5 x 5 Challenge

Still struggling to fit this challenge in, but I have a couple scheduled over the next few weeks. Just one again this quarter though…

2. Imperium by Robert Harris – the first book in the Cicero trilogy, this tells of his early struggles to get ahead in law and politics. Excellently written, but not a period that ever really grabs me, so it’s not my favourite Harris. However, I’m still looking forward to reading the rest of the trilogy. 4 stars.

2 down, 23 to go!

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A good quarter’s reading! Thank you for joining me on my reading adventures and…

Here’s to more great reading next quarter! 😀

 

Imperium (Cicero Trilogy 1) by Robert Harris

When in Rome…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Young lawyer Cicero is already developing a reputation as a skilful lawyer and compelling orator, when one day a Sicilian by the name of Sthenius comes asking for his aid. The unscrupulous governor of Sicily, Verres, has used his position of power to openly steal from Sthenius and now Verres is using the law to further victimise him. Cicero realises that a victory against Verres would propel him into the public eye – a greatly to-be-desired outcome for a man with ambitions to win the most important office in Rome one day, that of the consulship. But while it might gain him the love of the people, it’s bound to antagonise the aristocrats…

We are told the story by Tiro, Cicero’s slave and secretary, who has invented his own system of shorthand and, as a result, has made himself essential to the great man. Robert Harris is the master of fictionalising real events in historical settings and does his usual excellent job here. Tiro really existed and did write a book about Cicero, long ago lost. Harris’ version of Tiro is a wonderful creation – he allows us to see Cicero from the viewpoint of someone loyal to him but not to the point of obsession, sometimes critical, sometimes mildly mocking. Tiro’s position as a favoured slave means that he has a good understanding of all the various players and the political games they are playing, but has no vested interest or opportunity for personal gain from them. This makes him a more objective observer than any of the other participants. From Tiro’s perspective, what’s good for Cicero is good for those dependant on him. Fortunately for Tiro, Cicero is also a good master who mostly is quite considerate, although from time to time he seems to forget that poor Tiro needs to sleep occasionally.

In his afterword, Harris says about the story that “the majority of the events it describes did actually happen; the remainder at least could have happened; and nothing, I hope (a hostage to fortune, this), demonstrably did not happen”. This is both the strength and the weakness of the novel. Like most famous people from history, Cicero’s life is mostly fairly routine disturbed by the occasional major event. The major events here are brought to life brilliantly – the investigation of Verres’ alleged crimes and his trial at the beginning of the book and the battle for the consulship at the end. The long period in the middle when Cicero is making his name, forming alliances and making political enemies also feels realistic and credible, but unfortunately isn’t nearly so interesting. Also, the picture that develops of Cicero is possibly too real – in the end, he’s just a man jostling for personal power and wealth, and as such I couldn’t get too excited about whether he won or not. I had hoped for a hero and had to settle for a politician… and gosh, I feel I’ve had my fill of them recently!

Robert Harris

The only reason I haven’t given this the full five stars is that ancient Rome and all their shenanigans isn’t a period of history I ever find wildly interesting, and even though Harris makes it more fun than most writers, my usual problem remains of zillions of characters all with remarkably similar names all vying for election to short term positions of power. My lack of knowledge was both a benefit and a drawback. I’ve seen reviews from people who know Roman history and society who have criticised some of the factual stuff, but I didn’t spot any of that and was able to just enjoy it as a story. On the other hand, there are so many people involved, both centrally and peripherally, that I’m sure it would have helped to have at least some pre-knowledge of who they all were and what they were famous for. Harris does a great job of keeping the Roman newbie informed, but I still found myself constantly trying to remember what he’d previously told us about various characters as they re-appeared a few chapters later.

So overall not my favourite Harris, but primarily because it’s not my favourite period of history. Still an excellent read, though, that held my interest enough to make me want to continue on and read the other two books in the trilogy. And fortunately my lack of knowledge of Cicero and Rome means I have no idea what awaits me…

Book 2 of 25

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 165… and Quarterly Round-Up

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…

A spectacular reduction in the overall figure! Bet you’re gobsmacked! This is because, apart from review copies, I’ve been restricting myself to only acquiring books that are already on my wishlist, and I’m being brutally ruthless about culling that wishlist at the end of every month. If a book doesn’t sparkle brightly and sing my name, it gets thrown back in the pond. I’m a TBR Champion!

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The Around the World in 80 Books Challenge

Last check-in was in March, and I’ve had another exciting three months of travel since then…

I had lots of interesting detours again, starting with a trip to Toronto, Canada, where I spent some time with immigrants from Trinidad in David Chariandy’s wonderful Brother. In Appointment with Death, I accompanied Agatha Christie, Poirot and a group of deeply suspicious characters on a trip to the Rose Red City of Petra in Jordan. Damon Galgut took me to visit a disillusioned post-apartheid South Africa where I met The Good Doctor. I thoroughly enjoyed my trip to Lebanon where Najla Jraissaty Khoury regaled me with a host of traditional folk tales in Pearls on a Branch. I had a rather disappointing trip to Colombia with Juan Gabriel Vasquez streaming his consciousness and a lot of Colombian history at me in The Shape of the Ruins. And finally I visited one of the destinations on my Main Journey in the company of Valeria Vescina, whose wonderful story of the intensity of first love, That Summer in Puglia, took me to Brindisi and other locations in the beautiful heel of Italy.

To see the full challenge including the Main Journey and all detours, click here.

This is a map showing the countries I’ve visited so far. Some pretty big gaps there! Must start being selective…

52 down, 28 to go!

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The Classics Club

I’ve read seven from my Classics Club list this quarter, but so far only reviewed five. Still a little behind, but I’m slowly catching up…

24. The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg – 5 stars for this great Scottish classic, an entertaining mix of humour and horror, with some excellently satirical characterisation.

25. The First Men in the Moon by HG Wells – 5 stars for this science fiction classic. A great read with lots of humour and imagination,  and enough depth to make it interesting without feeling heavy – hugely entertaining.

26. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell – unfortunately, this one didn’t work for me at all, and I abandoned it fairly early on. Just 1 star, I’m afraid.

27. Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman – sadly, the anti-man type of feminism I most dislike and, even more sadly, she forgot to put a plot in. 2 generous stars for this one.

28. The Dain Curse by Dashiell Hammett – 4 stars for this entertaining if somewhat silly and almost entirely incomprehensible novel, that is saved by the relentless pace and the snappy, hardboiled style.

I’ve also made a couple of changes to my list:

  • After the Gone with the Wind debacle, I decided to stop reading books with a race element, written by white American authors long ago. So I’ve replaced Uncle Tom’s Cabin with Go Tell it on the Mountain by James Baldwin.
  • Having been gifted a Scottish classic I wasn’t aware of when I made my list, I’ve removed one of my re-reads to make room for it. So Annals of the Parish is out, and Marriage by Susan Ferrier is in.

28 down, 62 to go!

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Reading the Russian Revolution

I’ve read the final three books for this challenge but have still to post my review of the last one. So just two this quarter.

15. The Commissariat of Enlightenment by Ken Kalfus – a great book from one of my favourite authors, this is an examination of the birth of the art of propaganda and myth-making, told with a great mix of light and shade. 5 stars.

16. And Quiet Flows the Don by Mikhail Sholokhov – the story of a Cossack family before and during the Revolution and the Civil War, showing how their way of life would be altered forever. This is a wonderful novel, one that fully deserves its reputation as a great classic of the Revolution, and of literature in general. 5 stars.

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Murder Mystery Mayhem

This quarter I’ve read four books for this one, but so far only reviewed three. Fewer than I intended – I need to stop being distracted by all the other vintage crime I’ve been reading, and focus! To see the full challenge, click here.

15.  Some Must Watch by Ethel Lina White – an insane serial killer is rampaging the countryside, murdering young women. Unfortunately the plotting in this one gets a bit silly and it’s too long for its content. Just 3 stars.

16.  The Red House Mystery by AA Milne – lots of humour and two likeable protagonists for this take on a locked room mystery. Well written, pleasingly devious, and above all, entertaining! 5 stars.

17.  The Dain Curse by Dashiell Hammett – despite the fact that the plot is nonsensical, episodic, and barely hangs together, this is oddly entertaining, largely due to the snappy, hardboiled style of the writing and the relentless pace. 4 stars.

17 down, 85 to go!

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5 x 5 Challenge

I’ve been struggling to fit this challenge in, though it should be easier now the Russian one’s coming to an end. But just one so far…

1. Fatherland by Robert Harris – In a world where Nazi Germany won World War Two, Hitler still rules and the people of Germany and the lands they conquered are in the grip of a totalitarian regime, Detective Xavier March must investigate a mysterious death. Great plotting in this excellent example of an alternative history novel. 5 stars.


1 down, 24 to go!

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A good quarter’s reading! Thank you for joining me on my reading adventures and…

Here’s to more great reading next quarter! 😀

I’m taking some time off now to watch Wimbledon and stuff, so don’t do anything exciting while I’m…

 

Fatherland by Robert Harris

What if…?

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It is a spring day in 1964 in Berlin, when the body of an elderly man is fished out of a lake. Detective Xavier March is not convinced that the death was accident or suicide and begins to investigate. But this is a world where Nazi Germany won World War Two – a world in which Hitler still rules and the people of Germany and the lands they conquered are in the grip of a totalitarian regime. When March is told that the Gestapo are taking over the case, he finds he can’t let go of it, and soon he will begin to suspect that the murder was only a tiny part of a great conspiracy, the revelation of which would strike at the very foundations of the regime. And he finds himself in ever increasing danger…

I believe this was Harris’ ‘breakthrough’ novel when it was published back in 1992, and I’m not surprised. It’s a wonderfully realised alternative history – accept the basic premise that the Nazis won and all the rest flows from it with total credibility. The state that Harris describes is a kind of mash-up of Orwellian ideas with the realities of the Soviet Union of the Cold War era.

But I think the reason it works so well is that Harris doesn’t get too bogged down in describing his world at the expense of plot. His main characters are entirely fictional rather than, as so often happens with this kind of alternative history, fictionalised versions of real people. Although Hitler, Churchill and others get mentioned, they’re not directly involved in the story. Nor is March any different than he would have been in our reality – he’s an ordinary dedicated police detective with no great love or hate towards the regime. He’s still fairly young, so his life since a child has been under the Nazis and he accepts it as normal, and just wants to be allowed to get on with his job. It’s only as the story progresses and he gets nearer to the secret at the heart of it that he begins to realise the true horrors perpetrated by the Nazis in their early years.

From the 1994 HBO TV movie – the action takes place as Germany prepares to celebrate Hitler’s 75th birthday

The other aspect that I thought was done particularly well was how Harris showed what happens to regimes like this when they manage to stay in power for a long time. Just as in real totalitarian states, most people are not dissidents – they accept life as it is, grumble a bit about the things they don’t like, and don’t pay a lot of attention to things that don’t affect them directly. But it’s the ’60s, and attitudes are changing even here. Young people want to know more about the wider world – they want to travel and read books from other cultures and listen to the Beatles. With advancing technology it’s harder for the regime to control all information flows as easily as they once did so people are becoming more aware of what life is like in other parts of the world. Although the story is not about the pressure for change or for a return to democracy, the reader can sniff it in the air. The old leaders are ageing fast – the world goes on turning, regimes evolve or die. Harris handles all this superbly, I thought. He also shows how other nations, once adversaries, have had to accept the realpolitik of the situation and begin to deal with Germany as just another state. Defeated little Britain barely gets a mention, its power in the world long gone. The American President is about to finally give formal recognition to the Nazi regime by making a state visit to the country.

Robert Harris

But all this is relayed to the reader lightly as background to the main story. Meantime March is involved in a traditional style thriller, where he’s racing to find the truth before the Gestapo stop him. He’s aided by a young, female, American journalist stationed in Berlin, who as well as being involved in the main plot, tells March how the regime is seen by outsiders and reveals things about their actions that the world knows but the citizens of Nazi Germany don’t, including the Holocaust. (As a side note, I found some of the descriptions of this aspect to be particularly graphic and somewhat upsetting, though obviously true and therefore not gratuitous.)

I’ve tried not to say much about the plot because it’s nicely labyrinthine and much of the pleasure comes from being led through it gradually. I’ll simply say that while some of it is deliberately obvious, lots of it isn’t, and though I felt rightly that I knew where we were heading, I still didn’t know at all what route we would take or what would happen when we got there. I hope that’s enigmatic enough to be intriguing!

I listened to the audiobook version narrated by Michael Jayston who did a great job. Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the book both for the skill of the plotting and for the excellence of the creation of the alternative history. Highly recommended – Harris really is a master at this kind of historical thriller.

Book 1 of 25

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

Five times Five equals Five

Happy Birthday to Me!

This week marks my fifth blog birthday. Good grief! Thanks to everyone who’s joined me along the way, and a special thanks to those of you who’ve stuck with me from the very first year – your company is always greatly appreciated.

I usually do a big round-up of bloggy statistics for my birthday post, but this year I’ve decided to do something a little different. So just a few stats first, covering the full five years…

2087 followers

(always makes me laugh, since only around forty or fifty people actually visit me on any kind of regular basis, but it’s still always fun to see that “followers” figure grow)

Rafa still hasn’t followed me…

1131 posts

(I’m so sorry! *faints*)

George hasn’t read any of them…

193,066 views

(at least half of them from kids looking to cheat on their homework, I suspect)

Tom hasn’t viewed a single post…

47,766 comments

(My favourite stat! Thanks for being such a chatty bunch – that’s the real reason I blog! C’mon – help me get it up to a round 50,000…)

Aragorn has never left a single comment…

400 5-star reviews

(that’s the book or story that got 5-stars, obviously, not the review…)

But Darcy always gets 5-star reviews…

Phew!

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The access to new releases via NetGalley and publishers is one of the major perks of book blogging, of course. But I do find it has a small downside, in that I never seem to find time to follow up on authors with extensive back catalogues. I end so many reviews with “I’m looking forward to reading more of his/her books in the future”, and then I never do. So, since I’ve discovered that setting myself a little challenge concentrates my mind, that seems like a good way to celebrate my fifth anniversary.

The Five times Five Challenge

I’ve selected five authors, each of whom I’ve given at least one 5-star review and then failed to follow up on. And for each author, I’ve selected five books I’d like to read. I’m not setting myself any dates or deadlines – this is just for a bit of fun and to keep them in the forefront of my mind when I’m splurging on books to top up my TBR.

Philip Roth

Philip Roth
(Photo: Jenny Anderson/Getty Images)

I’ve read Roth’s American Trilogy (American Pastoral, I Married a Communist and The Human Stain) before, many years ago, and recently re-read American Pastoral, giving it not just 5 stars but the title of The Great American Novel. So I’d like to re-read the other two and read a few of his others that have achieved critical acclaim.

I Married a Communist

The Human Stain

The Plot Against America

Nemesis

Sabbath’s Theatre

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Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison
Photo: Reuters

Toni Morrison’s Beloved was the second book to earn the title of The Great American Novel, and shamefully I still haven’t got around to reading anything else by her. Some of these have been recommended to me – others I’ve picked more or less at random.

The Bluest Eye

Song of Solomon

Sula

A Mercy

Jazz

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John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck

I had mixed feelings about The Grapes of Wrath – profound and stunningly written but I really object to the way he sets out to emotionally manipulate the reader, sometimes blurring the line between pathos and bathos. So while I want to read more, I’ve tried to include some lighter ones too.

Cannery Row

East of Eden

A Russian Journal

The Pearl

The Wayward Bus

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William McIlvanney

William McIlvanney
Photo: Chris Watt for The Telegraph

I’ve loved everything I’ve read of McIlvanney’s – the three books in his Laidlaw trilogy and Docherty – and really want to explore his work more thoroughly. I’ve pretty much picked these as the ones most easily available, often a sign that they’re considered the best.

The Kiln

The Big Man

A Gift from Nessus

Remedy Is None

Walking Wounded

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Robert Harris

Robert Harris

Harris seems to be pretty prolific and I’ve managed to keep up with his new releases over the last few years, but have still barely scratched his back catalogue. I actually already own two of these, so really ought to get around to reading them!

Fatherland

Imperium (Cicero Trilogy 1)

Lustrum (Cicero Trilogy 2)

Dictator (Cicero Trilogy 3)

Archangel

I’ve deliberately omitted crime fiction since my existing Murder, Mystery, Mayhem challenge is enough to be going on with, I feel. And I was also forced to omit several other authors I’d have loved to include – Daphne du Maurier, Ernest Hemingway, Hilary Mantel, H Rider Haggard, to name but a few.

So what do you think of my list? Do any of them appeal to you? Which writers would you like to find time to explore a bit more?

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Thanks for your company in year 5 – hope you’ll stick around for year 6.
It should be full of books and chocolate!
(And maybe some more pics from my Heroes’ Gallery if you’re good…)

You never know – maybe one day Robert will visit…