Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

….“But I do beg you will not countenance that thoughtless way people have of flinging them up into the air. It is liable to do great harm, to confuse their intellects; and a girl, when grown into a woman, has greater need of her intellect than a man. It is a grievous error to fling them to the ceiling.”
….“God’s my life!” cried Jack, pausing in his stride. “You don’t tell me so? I thought they liked being tossed up – they laugh and crow and so on, almost human. But I shall never do it again, although they are only girls, poor little swabs.”
….“It is curious, the way you dwell upon their sex. They are your own children, for all love, your very flesh; and yet I could almost suppose, and not only from your referring to them as swabs, a disobliging term, that you were disappointed in them, merely for being girls. It is, to be sure, a misfortune for them – the Orthodox Jew daily thanks his Maker for not having been born a woman, and we might well echo his gratitude – but I cannot for the life of me see how it affects you, your aim being, as I take it, posterity, a vicarious immortality: and for that a girl is if anything a better assurance than a boy.”

~The Mauritius Command by Patrick O’Brian

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….That same day Rachel couldn’t remember which side her father had parted his hair on, and she’d realized again what she’d learned at five when her mother left – that what made losing someone you loved bearable was not remembering but forgetting. Forgetting small things first, the smell of the soap her mother had bathed with, the color of the dress she’d worn to church, then after a while the sound of her mother’s voice, the color of her hair. It amazed Rachel how much you could forget, and everything you forgot made that person less alive inside you until you could finally endure it. After more time had passed you could let yourself remember, even want to remember. But even then what you felt those first days could return and remind you the grief was still there, like old barbed wire embedded in a tree’s heartwood.
….And now this brown-eyed child. Don’t love it, Rachel told herself. Don’t love anything that can be taken away.

~Serena by Ron Rash

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….“But you do believe, don’t you,” Rose implored him, “you think it’s true?”
….“Of course it’s true,” the Boy said. “What else could there be?” he went scornfully on. “Why,” he said, “it’s the only thing that fits. These atheists, they don’t know nothing. Of course there’s Hell. Flames and damnation,” he said with his eyes on the dark shifting water and the lightning and the lamps going out above the black struts of the Palace Pier, “torments.”
….“And Heaven too,” Rose said with anxiety, while the rain fell interminably on.
….“Oh, maybe,” the Boy said, “maybe.”

~Brighton Rock by Graham Greene

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….Madam Flemington and the minister sat opposite to each other, silent. He was evidently trying to make a beginning of his business, but his companion was not in a mood to help him. He was a person who wearied her, and she hated red hair; besides which, she was an Episcopalian and out of sympathy with himself and his community. She found him common and limited, and at the present moment, intrusive.
….“It’s sma’ pleasure I have in coming to Ardguys the day,” he began, and then stopped, because her eyes paralysed his tongue.
….“You are no flatterer,” said she.
….But the contempt in her voice braced him.
….“Indeed, that I am not, madam,” he replied; “neither shall it be said of me that I gang back from my duty. Nane shall assail nor make mock of the Kirk while I am its minister.”
….“Who has made a mock of the Kirk, my good man?”
….“Airchie.”
….The vision of her eight-year-old grandson going forth, like a young David, to war against the Presbyterian stronghold, brought back Madam Flemington’s good-humour.
….“Ye may smile, madam,” said Duthie, plunged deeper into the vernacular by agitation, “ay, ye may lauch. But it ill beseems the grey hair on yer pow.”
….Irony always pleased her and she laughed outright, showing her strong white teeth. It was not only Archie and the Kirk that amused her, but the whimsical turn of her own fate which had made her hear such an argument from a man. It was not thus that men had approached her in the old days.

~Flemington by Violet Jacob

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So… are you tempted?

Serena by Ron Rash

Passionless…

😦 😦

When George Pemberton arrives home from Boston with his new wife, Serena, there waiting for him at the railway station are Rachel Harmon, pregnant with Pemberton’s child, and Rachel’s father, determined to have retribution for his daughter. But Pemberton has no sense of guilt or responsibility towards Rachel, and Serena makes it crystal clear that she’s even colder and crueller than her husband. As Pemberton and Serena ruthlessly continue to build up the fortune they are making out of the deforestation of North Carolina, Rachel must struggle to survive on next to nothing, and bring up her new son, Jacob, without a father. But that’s the least of her problems – things are going to get worse…

Having previously enjoyed Rash’s The Cove, I was really looking forward to this, and was delighted when several fellow bloggers and commenters decided to read it along with me. That makes me feel even worse about the fact that I thought it was pretty poor – no, let’s be brutally honest, I thought it was downright silly and rather tedious into the bargain. Pemberton and Serena are ridiculous characters, cold, cruel psychopaths who get away with murder again and again, despite the fact that everyone knows they’re doing it. We are expected to believe that nearly all law officers and authorities are corrupt and can be bought for a few hundred dollars – well, maybe. But apparently all businessmen and their wives are also willing to turn a blind eye to murder so long as there’s a profit in it. Yes, I hear you saying, that’s possible too. But, I reply, even when they know that the Pembertons repeatedly bump off their business partners? I know evil capitalists do anything for money, but go into partnership with people who have just murdered their last partners? I have my doubts…

The background plot is more interesting, showing the rapacious destruction of the natural resources of a still young America during the years of the Depression, contrasted against the attempts of some rich philanthropists to protect the land through the creation of National Parks. While those who want to protect the land get the most sympathy, Rash also shows how these philanthropists drove people off their holdings, depriving them of their sole means of scraping a living, in order to build wilderness playgrounds. Since these competing pressures are still very much part of today’s ethical and economic debate, I wished Rash would have concentrated his plot more on that aspect – it felt as if he set the table but didn’t get around to serving the meal.

The workers had plenty of potential to be interesting too, showing the hardships of life in the Depression even for those lucky enough to be in employment. With no legal rights and hordes of unemployed men willing to take their place, we see them unable to take any kind of stand against unscrupulously exploitative employers who show no concern for workers’ safety (although again, even in the Depression I don’t think I’d have stuck in a job under people who murdered their employees rather than simply sacking them like normal evil capitalists). Unfortunately I felt that Rash treated his lower class characters a bit like the rustics in Midsummer’s Night Dream – caricatured figures of fun, eliciting some sympathy from the reader, but mostly there to be laughed at. It took me well over half the book to be able to distinguish one from another because they were so underdeveloped, a problem I had, in fact, with the various businessmen the Pembertons moved amongst too.

Rachel’s story is the one bit that I felt really works. Her hard life and her love for her son and for this land she calls home ring true and provide the only real emotion in the book, and some of the best writing. I’d have liked to have spent more time with her, but the chapters about her are few and far between.

After Widow Jenkins left, Rachel lingered a few more moments on the porch. The sun had fallen behind the mountains now, and the cove seemed to settle deeper into the earth, the way an animal might burrow into leaves to make a nest before it slept. All the while, the thickening shadows made the mountains appear to fold inward. Rachel tried to imagine what living here had been like for her mother, but it was impossible, because what had felt like being shut in to her mother felt like a sheltering to Rachel, as if the mountains were huge hands, hard but gentle hands that cupped around you, protecting and comforting, the way she imagined God’s hands would be. She supposed Widow Jenkins was right, that you had to be born here.

As far as the awful Pembertons go, I suspect Rash was attempting to ‘do’ noir – quite early on I found myself comparing them to the equally psychopathic couple in The Postman Always Rings Twice. This comparison did Rash no favours, however, since it highlighted what I came to think is the real failure of the book, and the reason that it simply doesn’t work. Noir depends on simmering sexuality, hence the femme fatale, but there is no feeling of passion between Pemberton and Serena and she is colder than ice. While I’m not one for excessive sex scenes in books, this book was crying out for a few. Why did these two love each other? It wasn’t shared intellectual pursuits, for sure, and ambition for and love of money isn’t enough, especially since neither character seemed to care about the luxury that wealth can bring, or even its power. So it must have been physical passion and yet Rash was so coy about showing us that it didn’t seem a strong enough motivation. In The Postman Always Rings Twice, the protagonists are overwhelmed by lust, frequently indulging in rough sex, full of mashed lips, bruises and bloody biting – it might be disgusting, but it’s passionate! Here Pemberton and Serena take off their clothes and fold them away neatly in the chifforobe before getting cosily into bed together – not quite the same somehow. Freezing cold where there should have been scorching heat…

Without getting into spoilers, I will simply say that the only thing sillier than the book’s climax was the coda which followed. I laughed, and I’m quite certain that wasn’t the reaction I was supposed to have. A major disappointment – I can only hope anyone else who’s been reading along enjoyed it considerably more than I.

A link to Kelly’s review is below and I’ll add any others as I see them:

Kelly’s review

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 233…

Episode 233

A massive drop of 5 in the TBR since I last posted two weeks ago – down to 208! I’ve been far too busy stockpiling chocolate and cat treats to acquire books! However, now that I have been sentenced to solitary confinement either I’ll be racing through the books on my TBR or I’ll be spending way too much time browsing the bookshelves on Amazon…

Here are a few that will reach the top of the heap soon…

Winner of the People’s Choice Poll

The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng

An excellent choice, people! Mind you, this whole thing is reminding me of how many seriously tempting books are lingering unread on my TBR so any of the four would have been excellent. The other three contenders all scored pretty evenly in the end, but this one took a clear lead from the beginning and never faltered as it sped towards the finish line.  I plan to read and review it by the end of June. 

The Blurb says: Penang, 1939. Sixteen-year-old Philip Hutton is a loner. Half English, half Chinese and feeling neither, he discovers a sense of belonging in an unexpected friendship with Hayato Endo, a Japanese diplomat. Philip shows his new friend around his adored island of Penang, and in return Endo trains him in the art and discipline of aikido. But such knowledge comes at a terrible price. The enigmatic Endo is bound by disciplines of his own and when the Japanese invade Malaya, threatening to destroy Philip’s family and everything he loves, he realises that his trusted sensei – to whom he owes absolute loyalty – has been harbouring a devastating secret. Philip must risk everything in an attempt to save those he has placed in mortal danger and discover who and what he really is.

With masterful and gorgeous narrative, replete with exotic and captivating images, sounds and aromas – of rain swept beaches, magical mountain temples, pungent spice warehouses, opulent colonial ballrooms and fetid and forbidding rainforests – Tan Twan Eng weaves a haunting and unforgettable story of betrayal, barbaric cruelty, steadfast courage and enduring love.

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Historical Fiction

Serena by Ron Rash

Although Serena didn’t win the previous People’s Choice poll, MarinaSofia mentioned that she had a copy in her TBR too, so we decided to read it and co-ordinate our reviews for the week beginning 13th April. Regular commenter Christine (who doesn’t blog… yet) is going to read it too and share her view in the comments. Anyone else who has a copy fishing about, or feels like acquiring one, is more than welcome to join us!

The Blurb says: The year is 1929, and newlyweds George and Serena Pemberton travel from Boston to the North Carolina mountains where they plan to create a timber empire. Although George has already lived in the camp long enough to father an illegitimate child, Serena is new to the mountains—but she soon shows herself to be the equal of any man, overseeing crews, hunting rattle-snakes, even saving her husband’s life in the wilderness. Together this lord and lady of the woodlands ruthlessly kill or vanquish all who fall out of favor. Yet when Serena learns that she will never bear a child, she sets out to murder the son George fathered without her. Mother and child begin a struggle for their lives, and when Serena suspects George is protecting his illegitimate family, the Pembertons’ intense, passionate marriage starts to unravel as the story moves toward its shocking reckoning.

Rash’s masterful balance of violence and beauty yields a riveting novel that, at its core, tells of love both honored and betrayed.

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Vintage Crime

Settling Scores edited by Martin Edwards

Courtesy of the British Library. A new anthology from the BL is always a treat and I vastly prefer reading about sport than participating in it! And look! I’m sure that’s Centre Court at Wimbledon on the cover! Plus, I’m always a sucker for the word ‘skulduggery’…

The Blurb says: ‘The detective story is a game between two players, the author… and the reader.’ – Ronald Knox

From the squash court to the golf links, the football pitch to the swimming pool and the race course to the cricket square, no court, grounds, stadium or stand is safe from skulduggery. Entering the arena where sport clashes with crime, this spirited medley of short stories showcases the greatest deadly plays and criminal gambits of the mystery genre.

With contenders by some of the finest writers in the field, including Celia Fremlin, Michael Gilbert, Gladys Mitchell and Leo Bruce, this new anthology offers a ringside view of the darker side of sports and proves that crime, naturally, is a game for all seasons.

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Thriller

The Guest List by Lucy Foley

Courtesy of HarperCollins. Another of the little batch of contemporary thrillers and crime novels that HP kindly sent me, with perfect timing as it turns out since I’m not in the mood for heavyweight fiction at the moment. This isn’t one I’d have picked for myself necessarily, but it’s getting great reviews and there’s nothing like a murder or two to make the day seem a little brighter… 😉

The Blurb says: On an island off the coast of Ireland, guests gather to celebrate two people joining their lives together as one. The groom: handsome and charming, a rising television star. The bride: smart and ambitious, a magazine publisher. It’s a wedding for a magazine, or for a celebrity: the designer dress, the remote location, the luxe party favours, the boutique whiskey. The cell phone service may be spotty and the waves may be rough, but every detail has been expertly planned and will be expertly executed.

But perfection is for plans, and people are all too human. As the champagne is popped and the festivities begin, resentments and petty jealousies begin to mingle with the reminiscences and well wishes. The groomsmen begin the drinking game from their school days. The bridesmaid not-so-accidentally ruins her dress. The bride’s oldest (male) friend gives an uncomfortably caring toast.

And then someone turns up dead. Who didn’t wish the happy couple well? And perhaps more important, why?

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.

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So…what do you think? Are you tempted?