Skios by Michael Frayn is a farce. The Fred Toppler Foundation is preparing for it's big event of the year - a lecture, this year by the acclaimed Dr Norman Wilfred. On the other side of the island of Skio, Georgie awaits the arrival of a womanising man she met for 5 minutes in a pub in London and agreed to go on holiday with.... like a theatrical farce we have mistaken identities, embarrassing situations, amazing coincidences and mislaid clothing. A light-hearted easy novel.
Flight Behaviour is Barbara Kingsolver's new novel. I loved it! It is the first novel I have come across in which the issue of climate change is central. Dellarobia Turnbow is a restless farm wife on a failing farm. Throwing caution to the wind she hikes up the mountain road behind the farm for an assignation with a man for whom she has kindled an obsession. Before reaching their trysting place she sees what looks like a lake of fire and flees for home. The whole community is soon in conflict and confusion about the implications and meaning of her discovery.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity is a book of non-fiction by Katherine Boo. Boo is an American journalist, married to an Indian man. The book is the result of her four years spent researching the lives of the people living in the slums beside Mumbai Airport. Harrowing and gut-wrenching, this is an important book, written with great compassion.
In Soon Charlotte Grimshaw mirrors our social and political landscape, revisiting the characters from The Night Book. The story is centred on the uneasy interface of public and private lives, the impact of the one on the other, the things we will do to impress, to maintain status and to save our public image. This is a terrific novel.
Keeping it in the family, I also read Risk by CK Stead. In 2002, following the failure of his marriage, lawyer Sam Nola leaves New Zealand for London, where he spent some time in his youth twenty five years earlier. He witnesses the effects of 9/11, and the Iraq war, the rise and fall of the global economy. Stead's writing is wonderful, and his view of the last decade, seen through Sam Nola's eyes, is shrewd and witty.
I have enjoyed CJ Sansom's books featuring the lawyer Shardlake, set during the reign of Henry VIII, so was keen to read Dominion. It is based on the premise that England capitulated to Hitler and the story begins in 1952 as resistance is mounting. The atmosphere is tense, the idea intriguing and the execution terrific.
Soon, by Charlotte Grimshaw, is a coruscating moral tale set in New Zealand amongst the rich and powerful. It is fascinating to observe the downward spiral of one man and the manner in which he is treated by his family and friends - there is little room for the weak and vulnerable in this world.
Father and daughter are writing on the same broad canvas. Risk, by C. K. Stead, is set in the unscrupulous world of banking during the run up to the invasion of Iraq in 2002. It is both a love story and a glancing blow to the political and business climate of the times. This is writing of great finesse.
Harvest, by Jim Crace, is set in rural England at the time of the enclosures. Over the course of seven days the narrator tells the story of a small village brought to ruin as common land is surveyed for enclosure. This is an intensely affecting tale of an entire way of life coming to an end.
New Finnish Grammar, by Diego Marani, is the story of a man, brutally beaten in Trieste during World War Two, who regains consciousness but not memory or language. A well-intentioned doctor determines, on the basis of scant evidence, that the recovering man is Finnish and sets in train a series of events that determine his future. There are echoes of The English Patient and this book bears the comparison easily.
The Hunter, by John Lescroart, is a gripping, if formulaic, crime novel that presses all the right buttons. Excellent beach reading.
I'm currently reading Scenes from Provincial Life, by J. M. Coetzee, which is his trilogy of fictionalised memoir, Boyhood, Youth and Summertime in a single volume. Coetzee may not be the most cheerful man on the planet but he does write superbly and this book paints a tremendous picture of the man and his times in South Africa and Britain. Not easy perhaps, but highly recommended.
I took the opportunity over the holiday period to reread some favourites; some Harlan Coben, who I think is as good if not better than Lee Child, and my favourite fantasy author Robin Hobb. If you've enjoyed Game of Thrones try this author and start with Ship of Magic.
I was thoroughly engrossed with William Dalrymple's The Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, which tells the history of England's invasion of Afghanistan in 1839. England invaded when they didn't have to and when they did they made so many mistakes that I was groaning out loud while reading at the sheer stupidity of it all. Perhaps it has relevance to contemporary times! An absolutely marvellous read. William Dalrymple can certainly tell a story.
Another book I enjoyed was Peter Hoeg's The Elephant Keeper's Children, a delightfully humourous romp through Copenhagen, where two children try to prevent their parents from carrying out a heist at an unsuspecting religious conference.
I received some great books at Christmas and I added in a few treats to give myself a wonderful holiday stack.
An intriguing book, that is interesting and beautifully packaged (while the contents count the most, I also love books for their design and tactile qualities) is The Address Book by Sophie Calle. Calle found an address book on the street in Paris and decided, rather than return it, she would find out everything she could about the owner of the address book by meeting the friends, associates and family who were recorded in it. She records the interviews and the book is a record of this unorthodox 'art' project and her reflections on the process.
Another stunning book is actually a box of books - graphic novelist/designer Chris Ware'sBuilding Stories is a delight - I had to wait for this as the first print run sold out almost immediately. This is a box filled with small books, which can be read in any order, about an apartment (who has its very own book) and its inhabitants. Not only are drawings insightful, the stories are wonderfully human, with all the complexities and pettiness of relationships and loneliness. Melancholy and thoughtful and a refreshing take on story-telling.
I've just finished A. M. Holmes May We Be Forgiven. Read it. A. M. Holmes writes so well (and is very funny) about tragic situations and families gone awry. Harold's brother George looses the plot, is involved in an accident that leaves a child an orphan. While George is under psychological assessment, Harold "looks after" Jane (George's wife) who he is attracted to. Unfortunately George comes home to find Harold and Jane in bed, bonks Jane on the head, which results in her being put into a coma. George is arrested and sent away to a secure unit, leaving Harold not only with issues regarding his relationship with his brother and his own slightly strange behaviour problems, but a dog, cat, a house to run and his niece and nephew to guardian. The plot only gets more crazily believable! Savage and brilliant.
Feast Day of Fools by James Lee Burke. The third and latest instalment in the Hackberry Holland series sees the return of ruthless machine-gunning serial killer Preacher Jack Collins. The large cast of characters includes a Chinese gun runner turned people smuggler, a repentant abortion clinic bomber, an idealistic weapons designer and Holland himself who is thinking about having an affair with his much younger deputy while still pining for his dead wife. Thoughtful and atmospheric.
Diary of a Dog Walker by Edward Stourton. This collection of ramblings by BBC radio broadcaster Stourton chronicles his time spent walking (and living with) his Springer Spaniel Kudu. There are musings on the dog/owner relationship, dogs in war and animal rights as well as several lighter titbits. Philosophy for dog lovers.
Nicola Galloway deserves major kudos for her fantastic cookbook, Feeding Little Tummies. I've been using it for my one year old for several months now and we've hit gold with every recipe and idea. The recipes are simple to make, with easy to find ingredients and are adaptable for seasonal usage. I also appreciate the research Nic has done and presented in an easy to understand and no judgemental way at the front of the book. I've given several copies to expectant parents as gifts and I plan to use it myself for many years to come.
World Until Yesterday by Jared Diamond (reviewed by Neil)
Jared Diamond asks what our industrial western culture could learn from traditional societies. While much of the book is built around anecdotes of his many years experience with the peoples of New Guinea, he provides examples of a few other culture’s attitudes and practices in regards to justice, health, caring for the old and young, and response to danger. This is an immense subject and whilst raising many interesting points he steers clear of advocating any practical cultural changes we might make.
Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil
I found this to be a strange and compelling novel about the drug trade in India and the lives of those who weave through it; including Rashid the owner of an opium house and Dimple the eunuch, who carefully prepares the pipes. Thayil has claimed to have lost 20 years to opium addiction, and there is a validity to the book’s hazy, hallucinogenic path from 1970’s opium dens to the harsher world of heroin addiction in present times. This is a confronting and sometimes uncomfortable insight into a world seldom so artfully expressed. Long listed for the Booker Prize in 2012.
The Tiny Wife by Andrew Kaufman
If you missed it first time around, it is now in paperback. I loved this little peach of a book; part surreal, part matter-of-fact. (Think The Time Traveller’s Wife, The Tiger’s Wife - why all the wives?!) A robber holds up a bank but instead of money takes from each person present an item of greatest sentimental value. Over time, these choices have strange consequences for the victims: tattoos coming to life, shrinking, finding God under a sofa… and the illustrations are lovely too.
For the Love of Letters, the Joy of Slow Communication by John O’Connell
It’s hard not to think that this generation is missing out by not writing or receiving posted letters. The thought, the writing, the expressive language, the waiting and the joy of finding a special letter in the letterbox. I have boxes of sorted letters from friends and family, having lived overseas for many years. This book covers the tools of letter writing as well as excerpts from many historic and wartime letters. Expect to dust off your fountain pen!!
After spending much of my year reading textbooks, I have gone a little crazy over December and January on the reading front. I began with Mr Penumbra's 24-hour Book Store. It was a magical mish-mash of both the old written world and the new technological age of Google. I loved how Robin Sloan managed to portray the characters, and I think for the first time I became attached in some way or another to many of the characters, and I could not for the life of me choose sides. Highly impressed by this novel
I found it difficult to find one to follow. Next, I read Elizabeth George's new young adult fiction The Edge of Nowhere. I usually avoid crime, but this was quite watered down and I was able to manage. I was impressed with the storyline as George continued to introduce more and more trouble. The book ended unsatisfactorily for my liking, however, it has me waiting in line for the next one in the series to appear.
Fire Seasons, by Philip Connors, was written so eloquently and beautifully that I felt I could almost see it as a song. His life in a fire tower in North America was so well portrayed and by the end of the book, I felt that I could have been there myself. It was a book filled with compassion for the world and I loved every minute of it, I sort of wished I hadn't started so I could relive the magic of it for the first time.
A Dangerous Fortune, written by Ken Follett, was not surprising; as usual I really enjoyed one of Follett’s long, heavy books. I don’t necessarily think the quality of the writing is very special but I enjoy the story and the history on which his book is based. Not my favourite Follett book but I enjoyed extending my knowledge of London life in the 1860's.
I also read What's Left of Me by Kat Zhang. I spent the first part of this book beyond confused. I couldn't work out how the story of two spirits being in one body was going to evolve and I also couldn't understand how the 'hybrid' life worked for the main character who was called both Addie and Eva. However my confusion was short lived and in the second half of the novel, I began to understand as their life began to unravel. While it was enjoyable once I understood it, it is one of those one-off reads that you won't read again.
Having read many fiction titles, I decided to read one of my all time favourite non-fiction titles once again, Nigel Warburton's A Little History of Philosophy. Warburton explains philosophy in a totally understandable way, his short chapters on previous philosophers are funny and explanatory and I find myself questioning all he is saying. It is a title that is not too heavy or too light, and I find I want to recommend it to so many people who show any interest in philosophical thinking.
The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin is a book I had my eye on for quite a while. It was a rather beautiful read, a brave imagining of the often depicted but rarely explored character of Mary. Through her eyes, Toibin recounts the experience of losing her son Jesus and what impact it had on her life. A subtle and interesting read.
I finally read Life of Pi by Yann Martel in anticipation of the film, and thoroughly enjoyed it. Many people have told me the film holds true to the book which seems rare, I have yet to see it. The book is an incredible survival/adventure story, but there's more to it than that, with spiritual and philosophical undertones. Everyone should read it.
I'm nearly finished with my first Terry Pratchett disc world series book, called Maskerade, and I'm loving it! Pratchett has a great sense of wit and playfulness, perfect for a relaxed summer read.
The Cellist of Sarajevo - Steven Galloway
Based on a true story, this book draws the reader in to a world of desolation and despair in the war torn town of Sarajevo. Although the subject matter of this book was at times hard to bear, the underlying courage and resilience of the people involved was inspiring. During the siege of Sarajevo in the 1990's, a cellist witnesses the deaths of a crowd of town inhabitants outside his window as they wait in line for bread. In the days following this attack, the cellist carries his instrument out into the middle of the mortar scarred street and performs a haunting adagio, apparently oblivious to the sounds and dangers of the war happening around him. He plays every day for twenty-two days - one day for each of the people killed. The book follows the path of different individuals trying to survive in the city, and it shows how the cellist’s elegy eventually affects them all. Despite the aching sadness and desperation, I felt for all the characters in this book, it was an incredible read and brought light to an horrific event in recent history that I previously knew very little about.
The Secret Life of Bees - Sue Monk Kidd
This book is written from the point of view of a 14-year-old girl living in Southern United States in the 1960's, during a time of racial unrest and political change. Having lived at home with an abusive father for ten years, Lily Owens decides she has had enough and runs away with her maid. They end up being taken in by a household of African-American sisters who, for a living, keep bees and make honey. The sisters show Lily love and compassion, filling a spot in her heart that has been empty since her mother died. Throughout the course of the story, Lily searches for clues to her lost mother's past, whilst simultaneously questioning the attitudes of society at the time. This book was at times heart-achingly sad, but told in the frankness of a 14-year-old girl, it also made me laugh.