Category Archives: Books

Book review: Autumn – Ali Smith

Autumn is the first in four planned seasonal books by Ali Smith. It’s a gorgeous look at the relationship between a young girl (and then woman) and an old man, set against the back drop of Brexit Britain.

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We meet Elisabeth as a young girl (around 8, I think). Her and her mother move into a house next to an old man, Daniel Gluck. He is used as a free babysitter by Elisabeth’s mum. The old man and the young girl go on walks where they talk about language, and art, and life. These walks continue until Elisabeth is 15 or 16, by which time her mother has become worried about their friendship and had forbidden Elisabeth to continue this friendship, which she disregards. From early on in their friendship:

She saw through a crack in the curtains Daniel coming up the front path. She opened the door even though she’d decided she wasn’t going to. Hello, he said. What you reading? Elisabeth showed him her empty hands. Does it look like I’m reading anything? she said. Always be reading something, he said. Even when we’re not physically reading. How else will we read the world? Think of it as a constant. A constant what? Elisabeth said. A constant constancy, Daniel said.

By the end of the timeline of the story, he is 101, and Elisabeth is around 30. He is at the end of his life in a nursing home – trapped in a deep sleep, and she visits, reads to him and ponders the state of Britain after the EU referendum, and reflects on Daniel’s life and the profound effect his friendship has had on her.

Added to this, we get some dream like sequences from Daniel’s mind (in fact, this is how the novel opens with a dream sequence that takes us to the migrant crisis in Europe and to tourists trying to holiday on beaches with dead people washing up on the shore). We also learn more about Elisabeth’s mother and her activism in response to an immigrant detention centre being built near her home. There’s also a lot about the pop artist Pauline Boty and about the Keeler affair. It’s all quite disjointed, but it works well during the book.

The plot doesn’t run in a linear way, rather we get memories of different times throughout the present day story. The parts on art reminded me of How To Be Both – the only other Ali Smith I’ve read (review).

The post Brexit descriptions are stark and horrifying in the same way my mind is still horrified by the outcome of the referendum vote. It feels very current and accurately shows the tangle of thoughts that different people must be having over the same issues. It’s hard to describe, but some passages just broke my heart. This rant from late on in the book sums it up quite well:

Her mother sits down on the churned-up ground near the fence. I’m tired, she says. It’s only two miles, Elisabeth says. That’s not what I mean, she says. I’m tired of the news. I’m tired of the way it makes things spectacular that aren’t, and deals so simplistically with what’s truly appalling. I’m tired of the vitriol. I’m tired of the anger. I’m tired of the meanness. I’m tired of the selfishness. I’m tired of how we’re doing nothing to stop it. I’m tired of how we’re encouraging it. I’m tired of the violence there is and I’m tired of the violence that’s on it’s way, that’s coming, that hasn’t happened yet. I’m tired of liars. I’m tired of sanctified liars. I’m tired of how these liars have let this happen. I’m tired of having to wonder whether they did it out of stupidity or did it on purpose. I’m tired of lying governments. I’m tired of people not caring whether they’re being lied to anymore. I’m tired of being made to feel this fearful. I’m tired of animosity. I’m tired of pusillanimosity. I don’t think that’s actually a word, Elisabeth says. I’m tired of not knowing the right words, her mother says.

Finally, the relationship between Daniel and Elisabeth is very touching, and a bit of a spoiler, but it remains innocent. I was so glad it didn’t take a different turn. From when they first meet:

Very pleased to meet you… Finally. How do you mean finally? Elisabeth said. We only moved here six weeks ago. The lifelong friends, he said. We sometimes wait a lifetime for them.

I can’t wait to read the next books in this series.

P.s. I was provided with a copy of Autumn by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Thanks NetGalley!

 

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Books Bought and Read – September 2017

Overall a slow month for reading. New term at school though, and littlest starting school, so it was always going to be a struggle to fit it in. Still bought a bazillion books though…

Books Bought

A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing – Eimear McBride. Finally got a copy of this. It’s been hovering near the top of my ‘must be read’ list for a few years, and now I actually have a copy I will get around to it probably sooner! I finally bought it after hearing it be praised on the Bookshambles podcast – source of lots of my book purchases!

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The Sun is also a Star – Nicola Yoon. Kindle bargain and I’ve heard good things about it.

Oxfam books visit. Can’t leave without a handful of them! This was my birthday visit too. I got:

  • The Perks of Being a Wallflower – Steven Chbosky
  • The Earthsea Quartet – Ursula Le Guin
  • Wide Sargasso Sea – Jean Rhys
  • Einstein Dreams – Alan Lightman

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Now for a trio of physics books, because I needed to buy a prize for a poster competition I ran at work.

  • Seven Brief Lessons on Physics – Carlo Rovelli
  • Storm in a Teacup – Helen Czerski 
  • Forces of Nature – Brian Cox and Andrew Cohen. 

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Ended up giving Storm in a Teacup away because it’s the one I most want to read myself. Of course, I now need to buy it gain so I can read it…

The Secret Pilgrim – John Le Carre. kindle deal and bought due to my extremely long term plan to read all of his books. I know own 5 times more than I have ever read. It’s going great!

Books Read

Click for links to reviews.

Believe Me: A Memoir of Love, Death, and Jazz Chickens – Eddie Izzard.

The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead.

See I said it was a slow one!

Bedtime Stories

Tried to get my oldest child (age 7) to have something newer and more exciting to read at bedtime, but he insists on us read the Faraway Tree books again! He just loves them. Saucepan Man and all that.

The Enchanted Wood – Enid Blyton

Folk of The Faraway Tree – Enid Blyton

Also with the small one:

A German picture book that we have to look at all the pictures in. OMG.

Audiobook Review: Believe Me: A Memoir of Love, Death, and Jazz Chickens – Eddie Izzard

I’ve decided to highlight that this was the audiobook version I read because it has so many footnotes, it must be at least double the length of the actual book. Around fourteen and a half hours worth of Eddie Izzard’s life story, and I loved it.

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He’s certainly had an interesting, eventful, and quite tragic life. We start the book by finding out that his mum died when he was 6. He was then sent to boarding school with his older brother so his father could continue working. Before this happened he had a lovely time being at home with his family, hanging around with the neighbourhood kids, no idea that he would ever go to boarding school. It’s so sad reading about such a young boy being sent away.

We find out about boarding school life, and then how he spends his 20s trying to make it as a performer. He tried sketch comedy, and street performing, before finally making a success of stand up comedy when he was around 30. This highlights how determined he has been and how he grafted for a decade before getting successful, even though his early 90s rise in stand up comedy if often portrayed as swift.

There is an extraordinary amount of references to the Nuffield Physics syllabus of the 70s that he studied while doing A level physics. The syllabus was unusual in that it relied heavily on performing experiments to learn the theory. He refers back to this Nuffield syllabus at many key moments of his life, when he needed to make a decision. I found this very funny, because as an A level physics teacher, I know the course he’s referring to (as a historical A level physics course – not that I am old enough to have taken it or taught it!!!).

We don’t get many details about his personal relationships. It doesn’t detract from the book at all. Really it’s none of our business, and his life is interesting enough with out these details. We do get to hear a lot about his alternative sexuality, which is his own term for his transgender, or in the 80s transvestite, status. It terribly sad that essentially he’s had lots of issues in life because he likes wearing clothes that are traditionally female, and he likes to wear make up. I dress in traditionally mens clothes all the time and no one bats an eyelid. Society is so fucked up!

I really admire Eddie Izzard’s attitude to so many aspects of his life. I love him when he’s talking about atheism. And his footnotes are well worth getting the audiobook version for. His determination really shines through his entire life and follows him all the way to his Sport Relief mega marathon challenges.

Funnily enough, I don’t think I’ve ever watched any of his comedy. I will clearly need to seek some out very soon.

The Goldsmiths Prize Shortlist 2017

I’m new to the Goldsmiths Prize. It’s a prize given to a novel that breaks the mould for how a novel should be written. It’s only open to writer in the UK and the Republic of Ireland – that explains why Lincoln in the Bardo isn’t a contender, otherwise it really fits the criteria!

The blurb from Goldsmiths says:

The six shortlisted books offer resistance to the received idea of how a novel should be written. Variously, they break the rules on continuity, time, character arcs, perspective, voice, typographical conventions and structure. As such, there is a wildness to all of our chosen books that provokes in the reader a joyful inquiry about just what a novel might be there to do.” (Dr Naomi Wood, Chair of Judges)

Previous winners are:

2016: Solar Bones – Mike McCormack. This was longlisted for the Man Booker prize this year, and I have a copy waiting to be read because it sounds really great. It’s one sentence. One sentence!!!

2015: Beatlebone – Kevin Barry. I haven’t read this, but I bought a few copies to give as xmas gifts for people a few years ago – on the strength of several reviews I read. I wasn’t reading much myself back then, so didn’t get around to reading it myself.

2014: How to be Both – Ali Smith. Ahhh one I have read, and one of my earliest reviews, from before I really started blogging.

2013: A Girl is a Half-formed Thing – Eimear McBride. I just bought a copy of this a few weeks ago. Must read it soon. Must read it soon.

From the shortlist this year I have only read Reservoir 13 – Jon McGregor. Hmmm it wasn’t a book I liked, as you can tell from my review, but it sure has an unusual structure! From the rest of the shortlist there’s a few books I’ve been interested in reading: First Love by Gwendoline Riley, and Phone by Will Self (I read Great Apes a few years ago and really enjoyed it). As happens far too often, time and other books have got in the way.

Here this years shortlist (click for links to more information):

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I look forward to seeing who wins on November 15th.

Which ones have you read, and who do you want to win?

Book Review: Queen of Spades – Michael Shou-Yung Shum

I received a pre-release copy of Queen of Spades from Netgalley. It’s a reworking of Pushkin’s The Queen of Spades – a book I also didn’t know anything about. So after reading this I have got a copy of the Pushkin version to read so I can compare the two.

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Queen of Spades is a book with a slightly, magical-leaning look at gambling. It’s set in a pacific north west USA town (Twilight country in my mind), in a casino called The Royal. We focus on a dealer called Arturo Chang and his obsession with a mysterious Countess who comes to the Royal every night to watch the high stakes game Faro. She rarely gambles, though does occasionally, and no one can figure out her system.

I’m not a gambler, I don’t go to casinos and I don’t know the rules of these games. Queen of Spades doesn’t require any of this knowledge and it doesn’t get bogged down with the games. We learn early on that there is one legendary game of Faro played at the Royal, and we are building up to this game and its consequences.

You get to know a whole cast of characters who are all associated with The Royal and it’s a really enjoyable read. There’s a dealer with a gambling problem, his ex-wife who attends a support group for gamblers, his bookie and his bookie’s goons – who really just want to open a salon and gym! It’s nice to read something about such different characters to the ones I normally read about.

I enjoyed reading Queen of Spades and recommend it of you want an interesting look into a world of gamblers.

Book Review: The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead

It feels wrong to say I enjoyed reading The Underground Railroad, although I did, because it’s subject matter is so harrowing, yet so important.  The experience of Cora, a plantation slave who tries to escape to the North, in civil war era USA, is heart breaking and captivating. The description of her time on the plantation was very difficult to read. It’s not that I was ignorant to what slavery must have been like, it’s just never been presented to me in such a visceral, clear way. The text feels so immersive to Cora’s daily life. It’s stark and awful. And you can not fail to make links with modern day America with this in their recent history.

When the work was done, and the day’s punishments, the night waited as an arena for their true loneliness and despair.

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Colson Whitehead’s work is not an attempt to make a strictly factual account of slavery in America, but the experiences of the characters are firmly rooted in fact. The Underground Railroad is a physical underground railroad in this story, but in reality it refers to the network of moving escaped slaves around to get them out of the south and into the north, where slavery was illegal (sort of…).

After Cora escapes she makes several stops in different states, each state has a very different set up with regard to the treatment of slaves, or freed slaves. This set up of the different systems in each state is not historically accurate – but each thing described is something that happened – just not in the neat state by state way it appears in The Underground Railroad. For example, in one state there is secret medical testing on the black population. This reflects the experience of people much later on – but is still a thing that happened and is still yet another example of how freed people were not really free after all.

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Fitting a bit of reading in at lunchtime.

The Underground Railroad opens with Cora’s Grandmother Ajarry’s story. She is captured in Africa, and brought to America. I was glad that the slave ship had come from Liverpool because I think it’s too easy for British people to frame slavery as an American thing that we were nothing to do with.

Cora’s experience after leaving the plantation is of a life full of danger and uncertainty (as was her daily life on the plantation). I’m deliberately not going into the specifics of the situations she finds herself in, because I don’t want to reveal more of the plot than is necessary to discuss the main themes. She experiences freedom where she feels more restricted and confined that she ever did on the plantation. She questions what it means to be free (spoiler alert: she will never be free because of the society all around her). She feel responsible for tragedy that befalls most people who try to help her. She is frequently so close to danger and The Underground Railroad is a really gripping read in addition to being a great emotionally moving novel.

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Friday night reading. 

The Underground Railroad won this years Pulitzer Prize for literature. It was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, but hasn’t made the shortlist. All I can say is the ones that did must be spectacular!

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Love this author picture at the back of The Underground Railroad. I like to think he’s thinking ‘my book is amazing, and now you know it too’. Hoorah!

I loved reading The Underground Railroad and would highly recommend it. It’s an emotionally difficult read, but the prose is not complicated. It’s going to be one of those novels that stays with me for a long time. This has to be the thing i remember about it the most though:

The world may be mean, but people don’t have to be, not if they refuse.

Book challenge 2017 update

Wow! This is not going well! I am learning that I can’t plan my reading very in advance. Too much amazing new shiny stuff catches my eye. Still, I’m reading lots, and I won’t feel bad for reading what I feel like 😀

The idea behind this reading challenge is detailed here. I read one book off the list over the last three months! Holidays On Ice – David Sedaris. I still want to read more of them – and have copies of quite a few waiting on my bookshelves.

Wonder if I can beat my record over the next three months and maybe read two more? 😀

Here’s the updated list.

  • The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom
  •  Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
  • The Kitchen Boy by Robert Alexander
  • Brick Lane by Monica Ali  
  • Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood  
  • Emma by Jane Austen  
  • Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen 
  • Oracle Night by Paul Auster  
  • Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (review)
  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
  • The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov  
  • The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
  • The Awakening by Kate Chopin (review)
  • The Meaning of Consuelo by Judith Ortiz Cofer
  • Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
  • Fat Land : How Americans Became the Fattest People in the World by Greg Critser
  • Cousin Bette by Honore De Balzac
  • Song of the Simple Truth: The Complete Poems of Julia De Burgos by Julia De Burgos
  • The Red Tent by Anita Diamant  
  • David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
  • Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky  
  • An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser
  • The Bielski Brothers by Peter Duffy
  • The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
  • Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn 
  • The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco  
  • Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
  • The Sound and The Fury by William Faulkner
  • Time and Again by Jack Finney
  • The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald  
  • A Passage to India by E.M. Forster
  • Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
  • Bee Season by Myla Goldberg
  • Lord of the Flies by William Golding  
  • Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy
  • My Life in Orange by Tim Guest
  • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon 
  • The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
  • Sacred Time by Ursula Hegi
  • The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
  • Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse
  • Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand
  • Rescuing Patty Hearst by Virginia Holman
  • A Quiet Storm by Rachel Howzell Hall
  • The Polysyllabic Spree by Nick Hornby (review)
  • Songbook by Nick Hornby
  • The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
  • The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo  
  • Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
  • How the Light Gets In by M. J. Hyland
  • The Lottery: And Other Stories by Shirley Jackson
  • Nervous System by Jan Lars Jensen  
  • The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka (review)
  • The Story of My Life by Helen Keller (review)
  • On The Road by Jack Kerouac
  • One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
  • Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
  • The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd 
  • A Separate Peace by John Knowles
  • Extravagance by Gary Krist
  • The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri
  • The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson 
  • The Song of Names by Norman Lebrecht
  • The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem
  • Small Island by Andrea Levy
  • Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire
  • A Month Of Sundays by Julie Mars
  • Life of Pi by Yann Martel 
  • Property by Valerie Martin
  • The Razor’s Edge by W. Somerset Maugham
  • The Nanny Diaries by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus         
  • Quattrocento by James McKean
  • Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller  
  • Beloved by Toni Morrison (review)
  • Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov
  • Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books by Azar Nafisi
  • The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger  
  • How to Breathe Underwater by Julie Orringer
  • 1984 by George Orwell 
  • When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka
  • Bel Canto by Ann Patchett (review)
  • Truth & Beauty by Ann Patchett
  • The Portable Dorothy Parker by Dorothy Parker
  • My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult
  • The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath  
  • Complete Tales & Poems by Edgar Allan Poe
  • The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand
  • Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach
  • The True and Outstanding Adventures of the Hunt Sisters by Elisabeth Robinson
  • The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
  • Empire Falls by Richard Russo
  • The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (review)
  • Sybil by Flora Schreiber
  • The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
  • Holidays on Ice by David Sedaris (review)
  • Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris (review)
  • Hamlet by William Shakespeare
  • Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw
  • Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (review)
  • Unless by Carol Shields
  • Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie
  • The Jungle by Upton Sinclair
  • A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith (review)
  • Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
  • Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
  • Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
  • The Opposite of Fate by Amy Tan
  • Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray
  • Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy  
  • A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
  • The Song Reader by Lisa Tucker
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
  • Just a Couple of Days by Tony Vigorito
  • Galapagos by Kurt Vonnegut (review)
  • Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton
  • Night by Elie Wiesel (review)
  • The Picture Of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde  
  • The Code of the Woosters by P. G. Wodehouse
  • Old School by Tobias Wolff
  • The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon